Archive for November, 2011

On the Carrier Classic, UNCA, and the 2-0 start

As many have already written, the Carrier Classic never actually stopped feeling like an exhibition game with the surrounding spectacle as the main event. Fortunately for Carolina we came out with the win, since a loss would have certainly brought home the realization that it was, in fact, a real season opener, and launched a bevy of frustrated accusations that the conditions prevented a legitimate contest. All parties involved should be glad that the team that was supposed to win won.

It is true that the spectacle, the slippery floor, the strange sight lines,  and perhaps the wind and the temperature, too, prevented either team from ever getting into the flow of the game. The Heels pulled away because we were finally able to get into our transition for a few isolated stretches, but for most of the game, we looked out of sync, evidenced by Kendall Marshall’s stat line of five assists and five turnovers.

But as SI’s Seth Davis wrote after the game, the collective experience of the event is one that should be continued, even if the basketball component of it unsurprisingly did not measure up. As a fan watching on television you still had clear views of the water and skyline in many of the angles on the game, so at no point did you forget that you were watching a game played outdoors. The most enjoyable aspect to me remains that the entire nation fixated on a particular regular season college basketball game for a day, and that the game involved North Carolina. To have the President introduce the game, and even to have celebrities in the audience and participating in halftime events, are generally thrills reserved for the high levels of professional sports, but Friday night it was college basketball, and specifically UNC.

UNC 67, Michigan State 55

There are many things one can attribute to the strange conditions, but the enormous rebounding advantage we surrendered to Michigan State, especially on their offensive boards, wouldn’t seem to be one of them. Tom Izzo-coached teams are typically among the nation’s best at rebounding, but so are we given last year’s performance by Henson and the significant height advantage we have over almost every team we will face. Hopefully we can write this off as an anomaly moving forward into the season.

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The Carrier Classic and Opening Night

I wanted to get a few things down in writing before the season officially begins tonight with what seems to be the biggest season opener ever for Carolina.

I’m sure Duke is noticing the nearly around-the-clock coverage of the Carrier game, since the sheer volume of the multimedia material is quite obviously coming at the expense of the myriad of ‘other’ college basketball openers on tonight. In fact, coverage of tonight’s game between Duke and top mid-major Belmont was relegated to a blog post titled “Weekend’s non-carrier action good, too,” a point that evidently needed reinforcement.

If you haven’t already watched the multiple videos on TarHeelBlue.com of the team touring the ship and practicing on the court, I would highly recommend them. The ship and court is quite a spectacle, not least because San Diego is one of America’s best cities. The players’ interaction with the soldiers is a strong indication of their appreciation for what they are experiencing, and it is a unique reminder of the greatness of America that not only do we have the world’s most powerful military, but we have sufficient freedom to use that military for a million-dollar, purely entertainment venue of such cultural significance.

In an email to Shannon and her father early last season, when Roy was much maligned for our slow start, I regrettably wrote the following message:

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Carolina’s place in a new era of college basketball

In his eight year tenure as the head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams has essentially coached three distinct basketball teams. Those teams are roughly (though not that roughly) defined as the groups of players from 2003-2005, from 2005-2009, and from 2009-2012. In the current state of college basketball, and especially in our case since the first two of those eras concluded after mass NBA departures from National Championship teams, there isn’t a whole lot of continuous overlap as there used to be: only David Noel, Rayshawn Terry,  Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis played significant roles on teams in separate groups.

As noted above, Roy is 2-2 thus far winning national titles with his teams, and Carolina fans who lived through Dean Smith going 2-for-a whole bunch realize how fortunate we are to have experienced the last seven years. It is partly a reflection of this new state of the sport; there are fewer really good teams each year, so the programs such as North Carolina that consistently field really good teams have a better shot. That we fell short in a loaded 2008 Final Four field before cruising to a relatively easy title a year later demonstrates this point clearly.

But it in no way devalues the accomplishments of Roy’s squads; to win a national title you are only asked to be the best team in a given year, and there is no question that Roy has done a better job than anyone in the country fielding title-competitive teams consistently. Other powerhouse programs, such as Duke and UCLA, have faltered in this respect. More importantly, with the easier path comes far greater expectations, and this may actually be the defining characteristic of this new era of college basketball.

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Thoughts on the back court

Kendall Marshall: Even after Marshall made his very loud splash onto the college basketball scene last season, there remained national sports journalists who were unwilling to label him great, at least not great in the same way that his immediate predecessors Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson were great. One went so far as to relegate him to merely “solid.”

There were sound reasons for this suggested contrast – Marshall certainly is not as quick up the floor or to the basket as either. But it was clear at season’s end that the difference is in style and not in degree of greatness. As I wrote here last spring, on a per-minute basis Marshall’s freshmen season set him on course to be one of the elite passers in NCAA history.  To long-tenured fans of Carolina basketball, it is plainly apparent that he looks for his teammates and creates scoring opportunities in ways not seen since Ed Cota, and as indicated above, that isn’t for lack of great point guards.

Because of his impact on the effectiveness of his teammates, he is arguably the most important player on the roster. The marginal gap between Marshall and his replacement (sliding Strickland to point guard) is a gulf larger even than the one between Barnes’ and a Reggie Bullock/P.J. Hairston platoon; an  injury would be catastrophic. Judging by his occasional outlet of emotion yet distinct level-headed demeanor, Marshall is a solid kid who passionately loves Carolina basketball (he committed to UNC in September of his sophomore year of high school).  Perhaps other than Barnes, there is no player I want more to watch win a national title.

Dexter Strickland: Strickland is in an awkward spot – he is the only starter not listed on the Naismith Preseason Top 50, and he has a fairly loose grip on his starter’s minutes (at least at shooting guard) with Bullock and Hairston looking to steal considerable time, particularly on days when either is shooting well. Strickland has struggled to endear himself to fans with occasional poor shot selection and turnovers, but I think this year that changes in a major way. The maturity with which he has not only accepted but embraced his role as defensive stopper is remarkable, and at several points this season, he is going to finish on the break or make a steal at a key moment and remind us why he is a crucial part of this team. There are a handful of Danny Green moments that defined his identity as a role player; Strickland will collect his and cement his legacy.

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Thoughts on the front court

Harrison Barnes: There is little to say that wouldn’t merely repackage what I already wrote last spring, what ESPN wrote last week, and what is commonly understood around the country. Barnes is the best player in the country on a team full of best players in the country, and as the first player of his caliber to return for his sophomore season since the NBA’s one-and-done rule, he might be the best player in college basketball in several years. He is an usually mature individual who made a very strange decision to return, seemingly because he wanted to win so badly, and he reportedly has an insane work ethic. Add to that his late-game play last season, which literally made the different between winning and losing in at least five ACC games. For all of these reasons, there is no question that were he to stay beyond this season (highly unlikely), he could approach Ford-Jordan-Hansbrough status in Carolina basketball lore. Two years, even with a national title, likely isn’t enough to achieve that level of reverence, but he is at least on his way to joining the next tier in a program full of college basketball luminaries.

Tyler Zeller: Thinking back to the summer of 2008 and watching the recruitment hype of Tyler Zeller as he prepared to arrive in Chapel Hill, it is obvious to conclude that we didn’t quite get what we expected. He isn’t as effective facing the basket, was a little soft on defense early in his career, and wasn’t able to contribute as a sophomore nearly as much as expected. But he arrived late last year as one of the premier post players in the country and enters this season as an All-America candidate, finally realizing his heralded recruiting status. He may actually be one of the more underrated players in the college basketball landscape, simply because there is nothing flashy about his game (except his ability as a seven-footer to run the floor) and because he quietly raised his game to Preseason Naismith Top 50 status after having been somewhat forgotten as a freshman and sophomore. College basketball fans respect his game, but they should remember that he was a top-ten recruit four years ago, and that he was finally playing like it in the NCAA tournament last season.

John Henson: I always liked about Danny Green that he couldn’t keep himself from smiling on the basketball court, especially after triggering a run with a three-pointer or making a key defensive block. For many players smiling just isn’t their style, but as a former player and on-court smiler myself, its fulfilling to see someone experiencing such joy at meaningful success in intense competition. Henson is on a level of his own in this category, and coupled with his relatively frequent poor shot selection and the colossal mistake he nearly made at the end of the Washington game last March, he presents a conflicting persona of extremely likable but excessively goofy. I have a hunch that we will see more of the likable side this year, as Henson is a year older and increasingly comfortable with his role as a shot-blocker and rebounder. He says that he wants to expand his offense (and after seeing him drain a couple of outside shots during Cobb court pickup games, he definitely has it), but he understands that in most games this year he won’t have to. He is a more mature basketball player than he gets credit for, and with his personality and ability to make plays no one else can (ending the Washington game by deflecting the in-bound pass), he is one of the more fun to watch players Carolina has had.

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Pro-expansion thoughts from a college basketball traditionalist

I’ve been meaning to post for a while on the recent addition of Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC and the looming possibility of further expansion as a part of a major college sports realignment.

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to many aspects of my life, and that certainly influences my perspective on college basketball. After the most recent expansion to add Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College, I was admittedly among those expressing remorse for losing the nine-team structure.

A more important facet of my traditionalism, however, is that I still cling fervently to the notion that the ACC should be home to America’s best basketball. As is well understood by now, this notion is unambiguously false: the conference will begin this season with UNC and Duke ranked in the top ten as usual, but with nobody else in the Top 25. There is great potential for several middle-tier ACC programs to recover and strengthen the conference, particularly N.C. State, Maryland and Virginia, with Florida St., Clemson and Virginia Tech also likely to continue their recent successes.

But as much as I am a traditionalist, I am also a realist, and the ACC that once had a third or fourth perennial powerhouse to go with UNC and Duke is now a fantasy. Moreover, the entire country is undertaking a massive conference realignment that threatened the long-term cohesion, and thus existence, of the ACC; sitting content, even if we did decide to let others surpass us with football riches, would have ignored the possibility of Clemson, Florida State, or someone else bolting.

I cannot speak to the precise intent of John Swofford and the ACC in selecting Pitt and Syracuse for expansion, but in my view, adding those two fits what should be our goal for realignment. In order to ensure our long-term existence, we need to be at 14 or 16 teams; in order to preserve our identity, we should be looking for East coast schools that play powerhouse basketball and above average but still mediocre football.

The decision was mocked by some arguing that it does not noticeably bolster ACC football. ACC fans, other than those at maybe Florida State and Virginia Tech, don’t care too much about that. While expansion in general has to occur for football-related reasons, the particular programs we select should be calculated for basketball reasons. Given the necessity and opportunity of expansion, it makes sense for the conference to move on from old-ACC nostalgia to pursue its place as the unquestioned home of America’s best basketball programs.

For all of the above reasons, Pitt and Syracuse are perfect additions: they play a little football, enough to contribute to a solid conference; more importantly, they are top ten basketball programs that play deep into March.** Let’s be honest: the ACC tournament recently has been home to some of the nation’s most boring Semifinal Saturdays. The 2013 tournament could occupy the nation’s attention with match-ups featuring UNC, Duke, Pitt and Syracuse.

It is a new-look ACC embracing reality to return to its old, well-established form, which means that ACC purists can get on board.

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ESPN’s new program-specific blog: the choice of UNC over the other powerhouse programs

As I mentioned in the Halloween post, ESPN.com has created a new college basketball blog focused solely on UNC, hiring Robbi Pickeral away from the Raleigh News & Observer to write about the Heels for a national audience. As I have no knowledge whatsoever of ESPN’s internal decision-making process here, what I write in this post is purely speculative. But their choice of Carolina as the first program for which to focus a school-specific blog seems to speak volumes about our status as the premier college basketball program in America.

No matter the circumstances that led to the hiring of Pickeral, ultimately the decision cannot help but represent a choice of UNC over the other schools on the short list options. As a write this post, though, I noticed that ESPN has created two program-specific blogs for college football: Notre Dame and Stanford. The Notre Dame selection was no doubt due to their status as a football independent without a conference-specific blog to cover them. Stanford’s is more odd, and discredits my attempt to find meaning in UNC’s selection. I’ll write it off as an anomaly; ESPN could have chosen a major SEC school and did not, so there must be some extenuating circumstances I don’t know about. The choice of UNC, however, is not hard to figure.

Probably the most significant factor in choosing Carolina for this blog was the timing of 2011. Beyond fitting the criteria for consideration, we are the unanimous preseason #1 team preparing for what may be one of our greatest seasons in team history, and we are perhaps at the pinnacle even of our own storied history, looking for our third national title in eight seasons. Had it been another year, the choice could have been Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or UCLA.

Then again, it at least could have been Kentucky or Duke this season, but it wasn’t. Moreover, a huge part of our current place in college basketball is directly tied to our accomplishments not only in 2005 and 2009, but in the stretch running from 2005 to now. Even prior to Roy’s arrival, we were arguably the program with the highest level of consistent success since 1950, with arguably the largest, most loyal and deep-rooted fan base. Only Kentucky could rival us on the first claim; just Duke could on the second, and only then provided you omit the ‘deep-rooted’ criterion from the question. Kentucky likely wasn’t chosen because their fan base isn’t large enough; Duke didn’t get the nod because their program has vastly underperformed in both hype and post-season success over the period coinciding with UNC’s peak, excepting their 2010 title. Duke should enviously accept their inferior stature represented, in part, by this blog.

In the last couple of years, ESPN created separate websites to house content focused on five major U.S. cities with deep and diverse sports histories: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. While the UNC blog is a much smaller venture, it makes similar acknowledgements about a particular sports fan base: the brand has enough national appeal to warrant a spot on a national website, and there are enough people in a given region of the country to comprise regular, sustainable traffic to the site.

One cannot help but notice that the Southeast is the only region of the country not represented in those five major U.S. cities; neither Atlanta or the Charlotte-Raleigh combination provides enough of a cross-sport fan base to support one. But college basketball alone does control the region’s attention just as, for example, the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins all do in Boston. By itself, it couldn’t sustain a website, but it can sustain a blog. Our region should treat its creation as a badge of honor that college basketball in our state is one of the closest sports institutions in America to equaling the prominence of professional sports in our biggest, most rooted sports towns.