Contributing to Bleacher Report, but not going away..

As you may have noticed the past week, I’ve started writing about UNC basketball for Bleacher Report. I was inspired to apply when I noticed the increasing circulation of B/R articles during the UNC season, and I thought that since they accept rolling applications for writers, I might as well give it a shot. I spend enough time writing about UNC basketball for my own purposes, and find it enjoyable, stimulating and fulfilling, that it was worth an attempt to gain more readers and see where it goes. Most of all, one too many people told me that I sound like a sports commentator when I get going in a discussion…

But that is the opportunity and attraction of B/R: they build a massive team of writers by inviting anyone to apply and allowing the best to sort themselves out.

For those of you who had never heard of it: B/R was founded in 2006 and is the fourth largest sports media site in the US, having surpassed CBS Sports and CNNSI in web traffic. They have received accolades as a well run company that has successfully seized upon the evolution of online journalism, but have also received criticisms for the natural consequence of their model, a dilution of content quality.

Acknowledging my own shortcomings as an amateur journalist who does this for a hobby, I have committed myself to certain personal standards to avoid that trap. With the exception of certain opinion pieces that may arise, my articles will a) focus solely on the topics on which I can reasonably call myself an expert in a fairly strict sense (and I mean by this: college basketball, and for the most part ACC basketball) and b) not imply the need for the sort of access to the players and coaches that Robbi Pickeral, Andrew Carter, Adam Lucas, etc. have, which I lack.

Essentially, you can expect the same passionate and informed historical perspective on the experience of Carolina basketball that you find here, with a little more of the comprehensive insightful analysis of the team’s prospects since the articles have a wider audience now.

I am also determined to maintain this site, even though it looks sad and empty compared to the fairly awesome design of B/R. When I started blogging, my primary concern was preserving for myself my experience of Carolina basketball, and I intend to maintain that concern here. All articles that have a broad interest will be published first to B/R and then linked here, but there will be the occasional article that lacks a broad appeal and merely serves to preserve a certain reaction or thought or experience, and those will be recorded on this site, which will serve as a sort of basketball fanhood journal.

My first few articles for B/R are linked below:

5 Reasons North Carolina Won’t Repeat the Struggles of 2010

Harrison Barnes Left Carolina Without a Legacy, but Not Without Accomplishments

Kendall Marshall’s Leap to the NBA Leaves a Conflicting Legacy for Carolina Fans

Ranking the NBA’s Former Tar Heels, and Where the 2012 Draft Class Likely Fits

North Carolina Basketball: 5 Bold Predictions for the Heels’ 2012-2013 Season

I have laughed at myself for beginning both major transitions into blogging – establishing this blog last year and then now applying for B/R – in the first few weeks following the conclusion of the college basketball season. If one was strategically planning his development as a blogger, he would not choose to begin his attempt just as interest in his sport plummets for the summer. It’s as if I experience withdrawals that compel me in some way to hold on to college basketball; or perhaps it is that anticipation of next season is when the most fun writing takes place.

We will see, it’s just a hobby. The articles come easy, they are fun, quick and fulfilling to write, and it is an intellectually satisfying endeavor that keeps my writing sharp. I would certainly appreciate anyone who feels led to share, tweet, etc. my articles, B/R counts reads as the primary metric for evaluation. Check back here later for a concluding post on my experience of this season; otherwise expect most content this summer to be up on B/R.

Kendall Marshall’s wrist, Creighton, and the #PassFir5t movement

Silly as it seems, especially to the generation of Carolina fans who do not use Twitter, I would be lying if I said I had not been tempted to draw a 5 on my right wrist. The #PassFir5t movement has grown so large that I will refrain from addressing it at length until we know its conclusion, but without question, the events of the past week related to Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist will be seared into the collective memory of Carolina basketball history.

It remains to be seen how large a place in that history it will eventually claim; that depends, of course, on whether he plays and whether we win. Needless to say, it has the potential to rightly make Marshall one of Carolina’s most memorable and beloved players ever. Part of the reason I wanted to draw that 5 reflects how great of a teammate and likeable of a guy Marshall is, and how genuinely he seems to draw support from the movement. It is one of those moments I wish I was experiencing as a student, or at least a North Carolina resident.

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The (potentially) post-Marshall tournament

If not for one fleeting moment in Sunday’s game against Creighton, we would be reading stories this week on how North Carolina was the only team in the tournament to look as impressive as Kentucky in the opening weekend. Drowned out by the annoying group-think hysteria surrounding the Wildcats is the fact that for a few minutes in the second half against Iowa State Kentucky actually looked vulnerable. Kentucky made an impressive run that prompted the media to conveniently forget that part of the narrative, but nonetheless, Kentucky, like every other top team in the tournament looked, at least for a few moments, like it could possibly lose a game.

Every other top team, that is, except North Carolina. We jumped all over Creighton early and afforded ourselves the luxury of letting them back in the game – only in a relative sense – before burying them down the stretch. At no point did it appear that we could possibly lose the game. We were not vulnerable.

Most in the media have only made passing reference to this truth as they wish farewell to our chances at winning the national title, and for some even our chances at advancing to the Final Four. To their credit, a small minority have recognized that a logical conclusion of our outstanding showing this weekend is that we retain more than enough talent to win the matchups before us and continue to advance without Kendall Marshall. But I haven’t seen anyone write that we looked as good or better than Kentucky on Sunday; to most there is an ever-widening gulf between the Wildcats and the rest.

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The bracket

Staring at a printed bracket is a favorite pastime of mine, one that I will uphold stubbornly for the rest of my life, even though I, like most of the rest of America, host pools online now rather than score them myself. I enjoy the time it saves, and cannot rationally give that up, but to be truthful, I miss going through the brackets after each round and seeing each individual’s upset-predicting successes and failures.

A tale from my childhood illustrates the extent to which, at an early age, I acquired my love for a 64-team, single elimination tournament in the greatest sport in the world: I was once grounded during the second week of March, for actions unrelated to college basketball, and when I was grounded as a kid, it took the form of losing entertainment privileges (television and internet) for a period days. When she discovered that the period coincided with Selection Sunday and the week following, my mom realized that the punishment now far exceeded whatever my crime was. It wasn’t necessary to deprive me of my several days of preparation and then watching the opening rounds of the tournament, and the punishment was moved to a different time.

Anyway, below I have inserted my bracket, completed and finalized. For most of my life, I have been a so-called “one bracket kind of guy” who sticks with the same selections across all of his pools. Choosing to fill out more than one seems like an attempt to end up lucky, rather than trust your own bracket prowess. Fill out enough brackets, and one of them will emerge as a good one, but it takes skill to align what you truly believe will happen with what plays out over the three weeks of the tournament.

A few thoughts on the bracket, and on Carolina’s first weekend:

  • This is perhaps the least upset laden bracket I have ever filled out. I almost always pick a 12/5 upset, and I’m generally decent at hitting on it. I also enjoy taking at least one double-digit seed to the Sweet Sixteen, and I’ve had moderate success there, as well.  Neither occurs in my bracket this year, and most of it has to do with the matchups. The two twelve seeds with the best shot at advancing were Harvard and VCU, and both drew tough draws: Harvard catches Vanderbilt off their recent upset of Kentucky, and VCU catches fellow mid-major Wichita St., who also has much to prove and isn’t likely to be taken by surprise. It’s also a different year in college basketball than we have seen recently: the bubble was as soft as ever, yet the pool of good teams runs about 20 deep before there is a drop-0ff, deeper than it has been in the past few years. There is a larger than normal gap between the 1-5 seeds and the rest, and as a result I have only one true upset in my first round, which itself is only an upset according to seeds: N.C. State is better and more talented than overseeded San Diego State.

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March Madness

Trying to explain to non-college basketball people, especially up here, why March is the greatest month of the year is a difficult and often fruitless task, as I reminded myself before deciding to write a whole blog post on the point. For one, many elements of college basketball that separate its experience fundamentally from the NBA make it impossible to truly grasp it unless you know what it is to be a complete, all-in devoted identifier with a college sports team. The merits of that experience are thus better explained in anecdotal form, which hopefully will leave some time around April 3 as the proper date for me to explain exactly why March is the greatest month.

The primary element of the college game separating it from the NBA, in short, is the community and team oriented nature of college fan bases, as opposed to the individual-oriented fault lines of the NBA. More on that in a previous post here. This factor looms large when anticipating the potential late tournament match-ups of the historic programs, Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas, Syracuse, etc., not only because of the talent on the floor, but because of the programs, the coaches, the fan bases, things that comprise each team’s identity. But that doesn’t entirely explain why I want to watch Murray State v. Colorado, with whom I have almost zero familiarity, during my lunch break on Thursday, but you couldn’t pay me to sit through an NBA first round playoff game between mediocre Eastern Conference teams.

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Random early March thoughts on college basketball

I stated at the outset that I was leaving the x’s and o’s and comprehensive analysis to the ESPN folks; this blog really is merely a personal journal of sorts recording experiences that are among the most important to me. However, since it is now March, when we are deluged with material to discuss, analyze and pick apart, some of it quite stupid, I will no doubt indulge my outlet here to share a random collection of thoughts on the season and the national landscape at regular season’s end.

The all-conference teams and the Sporting News All-America teams came out this week, and I hesitate to write too much on this since several more All-America teams are soon to follow. But a few glaring thoughts. I was surprised by the ACC media leaving Kendall Marshall off of the first-team (even barely), but only because of how much the conversation had shifted in his direction over the past two weeks. The tide of media opinion tends to sway in a massive exercise of group-think weeks before the votes, and on that measure, many were calling for Marshall to be in the POY conversation. Ultimately, Tyler Zeller turned in too many increasingly impressive performances for that to be an issue, but all the same, voting for Marshall for All-ACC, and even first-team All-America, was trending.

In hindsight, though, his second team appearance should not be surprising. None of the players in ACC history with similarly historic assist totals made the first team except Bobby Hurley, and he only made it his senior season with a 17 points per game average. I think the media got it right – Henson’s double-double average and status as the conference’s premiere defender and Barnes’ status as our leading scorer made them impossible to leave off. What Marshall is accomplishing this year is unprecedented and truly remarkable, but a guy who averages 7 points per game cannot match the production of Henson and Barnes. Marshall’s classy response indicates he understands that’s the way it works.

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On this team’s underrated toughness and ACC road record

When the ACC is as bad as it is this season, it is understandable that no one is handing out much praise to Carolina for surviving the ACC season without what could be termed a bad loss. It wasn’t until we soundly defeated Duke to end the regular season that the national media (excluding Jay Bilas, who seemed to never leave our camp) finally jumped back on the UNC bandwagon as a legitimate national title contender. But there are a few observations to be made that validate the accomplishment.

After we trounced Duke to clinch the ACC regular season title, it was easy to focus on that as the deciding game. In reality, that is a game Carolina expected to win, and the regular season title was ultimately won back in January when Duke dropped two bad losses at home to Florida State and Miami. They made one of them up by beating FSU in Tallahassee, a great win that UNC could not get, but needed UNC to help out with a bad loss of its own. A season split of the Duke-UNC series should have led to a tie between the two, but Carolina made it through unscathed.

We weren’t without plenty of opportunities. Much was made in the media about the inequity of the conference schedules of Duke and Carolina, especially down the stretch, and when the title hunt was still a three-team race, most agreed that over the final month of the season, UNC faced a more difficult series of games, especially on the road, than either Duke or FSU. A simple comparison of which games Duke and UNC did not have to play this year illustrates the disparity. We missed out on second games with each of the anemic bottom three, BC, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech; Duke played all three twice, which means that three of their eight ACC road games were automatic (though they almost lost two of them). Duke, meanwhile, missed out on second games with Miami, State, and Virginia, and faced each of them at home in that one game. Again, they played FSU twice to our once, but our one game with them was on the road. We played a road game against every team that finished in the top half of the conference while Duke played at only FSU, and each of those road games came in one two week span to close the season.

This is an inevitable byproduct of a twelve team league about which the conference can do absolutely nothing. I point this out not to complain, but to tout the underrated achievement of our team. After we beat Wake Forest in an ugly but easy affair, I felt uncomfortable with the false security of our 6-1 ACC record. We had no road wins against legitimate opponents and that brutal non-Duke schedule still ahead with two games against UVA and three other tough road games; I silently predicted that we would drop at least one, since even the 2009 team had that unfortunate loss at Maryland.

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