Archive for April, 2011

The significance of Harrison Barnes’ awesomely bizarre decision

There is a debate brewing on the significance of Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, and Perry Jones choosing to return for their sophomore season, with some hoping that it turns into a much-needed trend, and others cautiously mindful that they are merely three individuals with an unusual preference. In the meantime, before an unlikely trend does or does not play out, Carolina fans should appreciate just how plainly bizarre Harrison’s return is in the current context. He and Sullinger are the first college basketball players in the last five years to be ranked in the top four of their high school class and not turn pro after one season.

A sophomore Harrison Barnes will be without question the most talented, formidable, NBA-ready force to play at Carolina since Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter. The past decade of Carolina basketball has ironically been its best while at the same time its least fruitful of star professionals. During 2009’s alumni game, the best on a floor full of Carolina’s pros were still Jamison and Carter, relics of the 90s outmatching every player the program produced since their departure. The 2000s produced five relevant NBA players – Raymond Felton, Brendan Haywood, Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, and Ty Lawson – with perhaps Wayne Ellington and Ed Davis soon to join. But of that small group none is or ever will be a star, which is interesting given that at one point in the early 2000s Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Jamison and Carter were all playing at an All-Star level. I’m not complaining; we have shown that you can win huge with a team full of college superstars who will be merely solid in the NBA due to lack of NBA size or athleticism.

But enter Harrison Barnes to radically disrupt the trend. He is the kind of should-be-one-and-done player Roy has not typically recruited, and in a total coup, he stayed. There is a reason Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Hansbrough, Ellington, Lawson, and Danny Green stayed three or four years each: they were not Harrison Barnes. They may have matched and in some cases exceeded him in pure skill, but not in the total package of skill, athleticism, versatility and size. We have not seen a player like him in college for his sophomore year in a long time, in a really long time at Carolina, and he is playing against a weakened college basketball landscape due to the same reason it is so strange that he stayed.

It may alter our highlight reels in a way we haven’t seen since Carter’s famous dunks. Barnes is not the leaper Carter was, so it won’t be in that way that he lights up SportsCenter, but with his killer instinct at the end of games, his propensity for taking over individually when it is most needed, and his versatile ability to score almost at will in a variety of ways.

All of this does not mean necessarily that the 2012 team will be better than the 2005 or 2009 team – I don’t think it will. But it certainly helps to offset this team’s lack of an established trio of college superstars on the level of 2005’s and 2009’s. Most of the guys capable of effectively guarding Harrison Barnes are already playing at the next level, and that does add up to a unknown ceiling for his, and our season.

The many ways to enjoy a Beef Master Frank… and other memories of Woody Durham

Like many Tar Heels, I am far too young to know anyone other than Woody Durham as the radio voice of the Heels.¬† He is an inherent fixture of Carolina basketball, a part of the institution who cannot not be entirely replaced because too many of his calls resound in highlight reels and in our memories for us to easily adjust to a new voice. If you haven’t already done so, every Carolina fan should visit the collection of Woody’s most famous calls that TarHeelBlue.com put together after the announcement of his retirement. Some of them I had never heard myself, having watched the games on television, but many of course I had heard a thousand times. It comes a little late, but below is my small contribution to the massive endeavor of the past few days to capture the meaning of Woody Durham in words.

Any veteran of the Tar Heel Radio Network eventually realizes that Beef Master Franks are one of the its biggest advertisers, and then comes to laugh at the frequency with which they are mentioned in the course of a game. Depending on your perspective, Woody is either the master of the on-air radio advertisement or the producer of comically awkward transitions into mentioning his favorite product. Regardless, I will always remember marveling at the great variety of circumstances that, according to Woody, were ideal for perfect enjoyment of a Beef Master.

I imagine that many Carolina fans remember where they were listening to Woody for the 2004 football game against N.C. State, which was not televised. If you did not yet feel like you knew Woody as a trustworthy friend, you came to in the final chaotic seconds of that game, in which State’s T.A. McClendon may or may not have scored (he didn’t), may or may not have fumbled (he did), and we were completely reliant on Woody to picture what had just transpired. Woody was a meaningful link to games that otherwise felt distant, and I have a collection of isolated memories of relying on him – leaving places to go sit in a parked car, for instance – when circumstances kept me from a game.

Three times this season I was caught on the road between North Carolina and Washington during games. When this inevitably happens again next year, I will again be reduced to cycling through stations in rural southern Virginia and northern North Carolina, hoping to find the nearest random affiliate of the Tar Heel Radio Network. Enough about the broadcast will be similar – the jingles, the players’ names, the Beef Master Franks – for this to remain effective, but it will be odd searching for a different voice coming through the airwaves. In a strange way I think we underestimate the familiarity and pervasiveness of Woody in our minds, even though he is one of our program’s most revered figures. When I play highlights in my head of Carolina basketball, some that have happened and some that I still hope to happen, without realizing it sometimes I play them in Woody’s voice. The man whose name is literally synonymous with the word radio in the context of Carolina sports is also the official sound effect of the narrative of Carolina basketball history, and in this way will we most noticeably miss his presence.

We take for granted that, with a few very notable exceptions, it is always the same voice behind most of our legendary highlights. But he will forever own several of the phrases that will always sound like Woody when heard during a basketball game, such as “UN-BE-lievable!” and “Jumper from out on the left.. GOOD!”

If Carolina cuts down the nets in New Orleans next spring, Woody, unlike in 1982, 1993, 2005, and 2009, will not be on the call. But picturing the moment now, a year before someone else begins their career with one of their first memorable lines, it is still Woody’s famous words of 30 years ago that echo in the background:

In Woody’s half-hoarse, almost-out-of-breath shout : “The Tar Heels… are going to win… the National Championship!”

And the coronation begins…

Carolina fans had their morning brightened just as the workday was getting started with the announcement that Harrison Barnes is returning for another year. After a quiet week, the college basketball media awoke to fill the internet with adjusted thoughts on next year, since the landscape of the season is now officially altered with Carolina as the entrenched, consensus #1 team. A few quick thoughts from my lunch break:

  • We will probably never know the true nature of Barnes’ decision, but despite multiple reports as early as two weeks ago that he had decided to return, there certainly appeared to be a significant level of indecision. His choice was layed out before him as clearly as it possibly could be, making his indecision a little odd compared to the lengthy evaluation processes necessary for Zeller and Henson, and even Lawson, Ellington, and Green three years ago. But perhaps the clarity of his decison was what made it so difficult since his two options were both pulling at him so forcefully from opposite ends of the spectrum; on the one hand, he has already maximized his draft stock as a top-three pick and NBA-ready player, but on the other he possesses an uncharacteristic, Hansbrough-esque love for the college game and desire to win a national championship.
  • We were going to be ranked in the top two nationally preseason alongside Kentucky even if Barnes left, with only the order to be determined. The order is now likely set, but little else changes about that situation. Except that we are returning the country’s best player, our leading scorer and resident master of the final three minutes of a basketball game. Edge: North Carolina.
  • I am admittedly somewhat of a Twitter rookie, but I got pretty excited by the response of our players to Barnes’ decision. The collective confidence, and even cockiness, of this team demonstrates their intense desire to win big next year, and it ought to ease any concerns about the cohesiveness of a team¬†filled with future NBA players. More than is usual, these guys are here for one shared purpose, and that is to win a national title.
  • ESPN blogger Eamonn Brennan wrote an interesting blog post this morning on the significance of Barnes’ decision, which makes official that three of the top five NBA prospects are returning to college in an unprecedented postponement of NBA riches. We have mostly the looming lockout to thank, but it is without question an opportunity for college basketball to dig in and hold its own against the NBA’s attack on the caliber of its best teams. 2012 will have more teams with legitimate claims to powerhouse status than any season since 2008, with Ohio State joining UNC and Kentucky. The past two seasons arguably had none, and in 2009 UNC left everyone else behind in its march to greatness. As Brennan writes, if the NBA is sidelined while this college season plays out, it will be a tremendous statement that the college game isn’t going anywhere.

Remembering those eight Carolina-Duke games while I was a student

Chapel Hill Magazine published a blog post from a UNC senior who gave up a ticket to the Carolina-Duke game to attend the wedding of a close friend. It was an admirable decision that I have no intention of questioning, despite what many who know me may think, though I will refrain from considering what my own decision would have been if I had faced the same predicament (I am thankful that I did not). It is important to add that it is only a decision for those eight games while I was a student; for a short list of close friends and family, most of whom would not get married during the game anyway, I would without hesitation miss one of the many Carolina-Duke games I will now enjoy as an alumnus.

But the point here is that those eight games were experiences I looked forward to my entire life, through many Carolina-Duke games as a kid, and I’m not sure there is one that I could trade looking back on through many more for the rest of my life. It helps that Carolina was 5-3 in those eight games (and only that after two losses in 2010). But its the greatest rivalry in sports, rooted in both basketball and culture, and best of all, Duke gives us just enough of a run to keep things relatively equal, but we come out on top in every important category. Those eight games in order of magnitude in the narrative of my Carolina basketball memory:

8. March 6, 2010, Duke 82 Carolina 50. Notable only because I watched it with three good friends at a Carolina bar in Washington, D.C. on an epic Spring Break road trip, this game was otherwise an utter disaster. That it represents a memorable transition to watching these games as an alumnus prevents it from being left entirely off the list.

7. February 10, 2010, Duke 64 Carolina 54. As this was my senior night in the Dean Dome, it was my one and only experience watching Carolina-Duke from the risers. It became a special night when a struggling team gave Duke a really tough shot, but ultimately this season will never carry as much weight in my memory as the preceding three.

6. March 4, 2007, Carolina 86 Duke 72. It may be a surprise that a Carolina victory (and my first home Duke game as a student) appears on this list prior to the last remaining loss I experience as a student. However, other than the Henderson-Hansbrough nose-breaking incident during garbage time, this game was an absolute snoozer. Credit that to Duke for not rising to the challenge; it was a pleasantly rough year for the Blue Devils, who proceeded to lose their next two games, one to N.C. State in the ACC tournament before slipping to a six-seed and falling to VCU in the first round of the NCAA’s.

5. March 8, 2008, Carolina 76 Duke 68. This was a statement game for the Heels after losing at home in the first meeting minus Ty Lawson. Home for Spring Break, I watched this one with my family in Charlotte. Of my four years at Carolina, 2008 was the year in which the two teams were most closely matched, and a tense game was concluded when Carolina made a historic and somewhat uncharacteristic defensive stand, shutting Duke down for the final five minutes. This game also included one of every student’s favorite moments of the rivalry: Danny Green dunking over Greg Paulus and shaming the onlooking Dookies.

4. February 6, 2008, Duke 89 Carolina 78. A game which we painfully lost achieves such a high spot in this list for a couple of reasons. Again, 2008 was the tightest year of the rivalry, whereas 2007, 2009, and 2010 were characterized by one-sided domination. More importantly, from my spot in the Fever section, where I watched two other Duke games and countless others, tip-off of this game was the loudest I ever heard the Dean Dome, matching every expectation I had ever had for what these games should feel like. It was a loss that came without Lawson and after Duke hit 13 threes, six from Greg Paulus. We redeemed it a month later before going to the Final Four. Duke lost in the second round.

3. February 7, 2007, Carolina 79 Duke 73. Another game that had all the makings of my ideal Carolina-Duke experience. It was my first of my college years, and I watched it in the Craige North 4th floor lounge with a large group of friends. It was a tense game, which led to the RA having to make a futile attempt at quieting us (seriously??). We won, Josh McRoberts cried on national television, forever captured on Youtube, and we rushed Franklin for the first time.

2. February 11, 2009, Carolina 101 Duke 87. It should come as no surprise that the 2009 games will occupy the top two slots; that season was more than just a national championship winning year. With both teams ranked in the top five nationally this game received major hype, only to see Carolina drop 101 points and run Duke out of their own gym in a blowout. This was one of several points during the season in which a historic Carolina team handled a top opponent with remarkable ease, leaving fans to enjoy the feeling of thinking “this team is really freaking good.” Watching from the Aycock-Graham lounge, we rushed Franklin, but it was a relatively calm rush, indicative of the eagerness with which we awaited the future, more memorable rush we knew was coming April 6. I will always remember Shannon bravely leaving her friends and navigating the crowd to find me, so that we could experience our first Duke-Carolina game celebration together at school. This game also completed a four year reign of dominance over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium; watching seniors who slept in a tent for weeks soak in the reality that they were never going to see their team beat Carolina at home was glorious.

1. March 8, 2009, Carolina 79 Duke 71. This game was destined for this spot from the moment Tyler Hansbrough announced he was returning for his senior season. It was the biggest senior night in Chapel Hill since Phil Ford’s in 1978, recognizing one of college basketball’s greatest ever and a player who had no business ever making it to senior night in an era of early departures to the NBA. In many ways this felt more like a senior night for me, since we all knew it was not only Tyler’s, Danny Green’s and Bobby Frasor’s final game at the Dean Dome, but also Lawson’s and Wayne Ellington’s. This was the final time we watched the players who together represented the team we watched in person for three years as students, and that thought overshadowed a game that we never once thought was in doubt. Unlike the previous Duke game that year, I watched it with Shannon standing next to me, until a few weeks ago the only Duke game for which that was true. Like the win in Durham a few weeks earlier, this game finished in anticlimactic fashion with anxiousness for the next phase of the season to begin. But after Carolina stormed through the tournament in a way that even exceeded our hopes, they solidified their legacy as one of the greatest teams ever and cemented this game as the most memorable Duke game of my four years at UNC.

The Wait Continues…

I sincerely hoped that my next post would be a celebration of Harrison Barnes’ official announcement, yet it was not meant to be. There was, however, a letter to the editor in today’s Daily Tar Heel enumerating the reasons why Harrison should stay and imploring him to do so. The letter is worth mentioning, mostly due to its stark contrast to a similarly themed letter written by a Dookie who took a very different approach to unsuccesfully pleading with Kyrie Irving.

I am not in the habit of making generalizations based on two individuals’ perspectives, and I do not intend to do so here, even though the Dookie was a Chronicle columnist, not a random student. But if Irving read this column, he no doubt leaves Duke feeling a bit patronized by its student body, perhaps in the same way Elton Brand once felt in a similar situation. The column makes no effort to understand Irving’s situation, instead portraying his consideration of the NBA draft as unambiguously short-sighted and stupid. To arrive at such an absurd perspective on the decision, the author laughably misrepresents Irving’s draft prospects, comparing the likely top overall pick to William Avery, a Duke player who left early a decade ago and was selected on the fringe of the lottery. I understand the light-hearted tone of the column and respect greatly its main points on the superiority of college basketball. But making your best player feel like an idiot wasn’t necessary to communicate those ideals.

Today’s letter, by contrast, did not attempt to make a difficult decision seem easy, and it does not speak to Harrison as if he is a child about to make an immature and catastrophic mistake, and therefore the author deserves credit for a sophisticated and respectful plea. It is, however, not without its problems, not in style but in its evidence.

Kemba Walker will not go second in the draft, but down near the bottom of the top ten. The only players in the draft with a prayer of being selected ahead of Barnes are Irving and Derrick Williams, and only Irving has declared. Barnes and Williams are viewed as a toss-up for the #2 spot, playing similar positions, and much of the decision would depend on which team is selecting second. Moreover, if the Washington Wizards win the lottery, they will not select Irving having already selected John Wall a year ago to play point. In that scenario, Barnes would have a very real chance at being the top pick.

More importantly, he really cannot improve upon this by staying a year. Next season he will be in the same position, jockeying for the top pick with Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, and Jared Sullinger.

The good news though: the other evidence adduced by the letter’s author seems to matter more to Barnes; he would have decided by now otherwise. He wants to cut down the nets in 2012, and its for that reason only that we are hearing rumors of his return.

The numbers on Kendall Marshall’s potentially record-setting assists

All-time records may seem like a silly discussion topic after someone’s freshman year, but nevertheless, Kendall Marshall’s numbers were just that good, begging the question: is he heir to the NCAA all-time assist record? First, he would have to stay four years, so let’s assume for the sake of this post that he does.

Marshall finished his freshman season with 230 assists, a 6.2 per game average to lead the ACC. Simply repeating this season’s performance three more times would place him 12th all-time in the NCAA, after spending half of this season playing only half or less of the game. In making a run at the NCAA assist record, he is competing against three guys who eclipsed the 1,000 assist mark; to keep himself in the running he has to make a serious dent each year, and it cannot be understated how impressive it was to do this in his limited minutes early.

There are a couple of ways to extrapolate Marshall’s performance into a four year estimate. In the sixteen games following the departure of Larry Drew, when Marshall finally received full starter’s minutes, he averaged an absurd 8.5 assists per game. Bobby Hurley, the Dookie he is chasing for the record, recorded 1,076 assists in 140 games for a pedestrian (only when compared to Marshall, of course) 7.7 per game. If Marshall were to maintain this pace for three years and average 35 games per season (as Hurley did), he would shatter Hurley’s total with 1,122 assists.

Whether Marshall can maintain this pace over the course of three years is what makes the remainder of his career so intriguing. On the one hand, 8.5 assists per game is an impossibly high number for a 40 minute college game. On the other, Marshall seems to tally ridiculous assist totals even during games in which he and our offense struggle, and 8.5 per game in his increased minutes is actually a little under his expected average of 8.75 based on his season-long per 40 minute average.

His playing time might be the greatest obstacle. During this stretch of sixteen games Marshall averaged nearly 35 minutes per game in the absence of a backup point guard. There is a problem with that stat: in his three seasons as Roy Williams starting point guard, Ty Lawson averaged 25, 25, and 29 minutes per game. For the rest of Marshall’s career at Carolina he will have a viable backup, which means his minutes will almost certainly take a huge hit.

Marshall averaged 10 assists per forty minutes this season. If he plays 29 minutes per game, 35 games per season for three more years, and averages 10 assists per 40 minutes, his career assist total rests at 991, good for fourth all time. Only 32 minutes per game, leading to an 8 per game average, would break the record. Of course, a trip to the Final Four will typically yield Carolina between 37 and 39 games; this year’s Elite Eight finish coupled with a run to the ACC tournament final yielded 37. If Carolina maintains its consistent habit under Roy of playing deep into March, Marshall could potentially play 8 to 16 more games than Hurley, games in which his minutes would drift upward toward 35 per game. At 10 assists per 40 minutes, he would need 10, an admittedly daunting average of 37.5 games per season.

What is clear: that Kendall Marshall has the capability not only to surpass the three point guards who would remain ahead of him (Hurley, N.C. State’s Chris Corchiani with 1,038, and UNC’s Ed Cota with 1,030), but to shatter their totals and per game averages. Whether he will receive the minutes to do so remains to be seen.

Ridiculously early preseason polls

Sports journalism has an advantage over other forms in the percentage of articles that are written purely because they are just that fun to read and to write. For no other reason did Dick Vitale, Andy Katz, and Luke Winn release preseason rankings for 2011-2012 within days of UConn’s title victory over Butler.

They are early in the sense that we have to wait seven long months in which college basketball sadly will be removed from the forefront of our minds. But they are by no means too early. With the exception of a handful of undecided players on the NBA draft, we know the core look of each team’s roster, and that will not change in the long doldrums of summer. The good news for the Heels: we are near the top regardless of whether the best player in the country decides to return.

Andy Katz:

1. Kentucky 2. North Carolina 3. Ohio State 4. Texas 5. Connecticut 6. Duke. 7. Syracuse

Luke Winn:

1. North Carolina 2. Ohio State. 3. Duke. 4. Syracuse. 5. Kentucky 6. Kansas 7. Florida

Luke Winn ought to be checked on, making a relatively simple task a difficult one with his nonsensical undervaluing of Kentucky. Among these top teams, three easily separate themselves as the top tier, and those are North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State. No one else closely matches the depth of talent and experience of those three teams. Katz acknowledges that if Barnes returnes, he will bump Carolina to the #1 spot. I agree with the move, since we will have top-level talent and depth at every position, no obvious holes with the arrival of P.J. Hairston to shoot the outside shot, the best player in the country, a complete assortment of role players, and no freshmen starting.

But it is admittedly a tough call with Kentucky, who will have just as much talent but with much less experience. Their freshmen class alone would likely rank as the #2 team in the country, consisting of four top-20 players, three of whom are the best power forward, best small forward, and best point guard in the class, respectively. Add to that the return of two starters as seniors from this year’s team and most likely a sophomore Doron Lamb. Freshmen will play most of the critical roles for Calipari, as usual, but there is notable experience coming back.

In a real surprise, I think both Katz and Winn are too generous to Duke, significantly undervaluing the difficulty of replacing Nolan Smith. Smith carried them on his back through much of this season, and he ought to have been the National Player of the Year for doubling as one of the nation’s best scorers and best facilitators of his teammates. As Winn points out, Duke will have the most talented three point shooting backcourt in the country. But they had that this season, as well, and their dependence on it led them to occasional struggles. Next season, they will be even more one-dimensionally dependent on it, and without the toughness, clutch play, and experience of Smith. There will be long stretches of struggling to put points on the board, and that ought to relegate Duke at least behind Syracuse, UConn, and Florida.