Frankly, I am worried Carolina’s basketball team may be too good for its own good.
The Tar Heels have improved their defense and intensity since early season losses to UNLV and Kentucky, and they blew out their first two ACC opponents. Miami, with whom they’ve had trouble the last couple of years, had the guards and big men to test Carolina. But the Hurricanes flunked.
Another supposed test comes tomorrow at Florida State, which was picked to finish behind UNC and Duke in the ACC race this season. I hope it’s a tough, hard-fought victory for the Heels because they need it to begin getting ready for the road to the Final Four and to prove the rest of the ACC won’t pave that road with fool’s gold.
Remember 1991, that awful weekend in Indianapolis when Carolina lost to Kansas, and when Duke shocked undefeated and top-ranked UNLV, the defending national champion? Most people thought the Blue Devils couldn’t play with the Rebels and would get whipped like the year before in Denver.
Well, leading up to that week, Mike Krzyzewski’s entire motivation was that Vegas was vulnerable because it had creamed everyone that season and had no experience in a close game. Coach K convinced the Blue Devils, who were damn good in their own right, that if they kept it close UNLV would fold down the stretch. Bingo.
Carolina faces a different kind of treachery this season, and it goes beyond the Sports Illustrated jinx and every other preseason poll that basically handed the Tar Heels their third national championship in the last eight years. It is rare in college basketball of today to have all five starters back, at least three of whom would have been NBA lottery picks the year before. And it certainly does not help that the ACC is as lame as I can ever remember it.
So how will Roy Williams keep his team’s attention at razor’s edge so they can be ready for much stiffer competition in the NCAA Tournament? Especially for Carolina’s mega-talented but freakishly frail front line? It looks like Duke, with Ryan Kelly and a plethora of Plumlees is the only front court to provide such a challenge this season. Hope I’m wrong, but trouble is, it’s hard to tell whether a tough game is because the other side played really well or we didn’t. And statistics lie; we all know that.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been known to put his basketball front line in football helmets and pads, then practice beating the stuffing out of each other in practice so the Spartans can do the same thing to other team at game time. Alabama football coach Nick Saban was so intent on having his team as fit and strong for the BCS championship game that he gave each of his players weight, body fat and strength goals that they had to reach and maintain right up to kickoff.
Maybe ol’ Roy can invent such a concoction for Henson, Zeller and McAdoo, so they won’t look like chicken wings to pluck by some Big East behemoths or SEC strongmen when they meet down the road. Sure, our guys are so fleet and full of finesse that they can outrun opponents and out-maneuver most in a spread court game. But I’m worried about a game every team faces when the gloves come off (or go on).
When the time comes, the Heels will have to be ready to bang & box out as well as block shots, stay as much on the floor for hand-to-hand combat as in the air for alley-oops, and become as good defenders as they are drivers and dunksters.
In short, they have to get ready to rumble. And it doesn’t look like the lame ACC will help them get there.