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:

“The problems the past two years are deeper than merely Roy’s coaching, and I don’t think a better coach alone would make this team a title contender. The fact of the matter is that usually Roy is successful by out-recruiting everyone in the country- we consistently have the most talented roster in the country top to bottom, in fact I’d say we’ve been the most talented team in the country every year Roy has been here except 06 and the past two years. However, the past two years weren’t for lack of recruiting, but for our recruits not panning out. Quite frankly, we have 8 players on this roster who came to Carolina as elite recruits that would have formed the core of the #1 team in the country had most of them met expectations – except thus far only one has, and that is Kendall Marshall. Imagine this team if Tyler Zeller was a First Team All American, Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes were regular reliable double digit scoring options like Wayne Ellington was his freshman season (Barnes pretty much is, but needs a lot of shots to do it) , John Henson was an All American, and Strickland and McDonald were Danny Green caliber role players. We would be the best team in the country with ridiculous depth. Roy missed on some of these recruits, which is ordinarily his strength, and that is the root of our struggles. There is still hope though, Barnes and Bullock may yet emerge, and Strickland and McDonald may become solid role players. Ultimately though, this team needs an All-American or two to reach real prominence.”

Though I have since been proven wrong, at the time I was very right. But it is this fact that makes this team so special; they got to do what no other Carolina team has done recently: after sinking into an abyss, they escaped to surprise the country, win the ACC, and advance deep into March. While defying expectations isn’t usually a cause for celebration in Chapel Hill,  it was last season, and watching a team that toiled so much finally win meaningful basketball games was a lot of fun.

Two more factors contribute to how special this team is. One is obvious, and it has been well-chronicled here and elsewhere: other than the 2006 Florida gators, no team in college basketball history has collectively spurned such NBA riches to return for a title run. The other is the cohesion of the group both socially and on the floor. With the purging of Larry Drew, what seems to be left is a large, very tight group of friends that does things like play pick-up with students on campus. Because of their use of Twitter, fans now have a clearer view into the friendships of players than before, but it still stands that this team sticks out. They have a lot of fun together playing basketball and celebrating their successes, and we can anxiously imagine what a post-title welcoming back into the Smith Center would look like featuring the personalities of Henson, Bullock, Barnes, and company.

I will conclude with some observations about Dook. As I mentioned above, Duke got only a passing mention in a blog post dedicated to all of college basketball’s opening weekend not taking place on an aircraft carrier. Even better, the mention was in the context of highlighting their showdown with Belmont because Belmont is widely considered the nation’s top mid-major, and tonight’s game is a potential upset. Bold prediction: tonight is going to be the greatest season opening night in Carolina history, with the Heels prevailing by double-digits and Duke losing at home by 8 to the team that almost beat them in the first round of the NCAA tournament four years ago. This year’s Belmont team is talented, experienced, and controls the pace of the game, while Duke is young, inexperienced, and has struggled on defense in exhibitions.

It’s also worth noting that in ESPN’s full season preview article, in which all of their many college basketball analysts made detailed predictions for the season, not a single analyst had Carolina anywhere but the Final Four. I had to do a text search to find the word “Duke” anywhere on the page, and found only one instance: not in any of the Final Four predictions, but in the last paragraph, where Duke’s own Jay Williams mentioned them only to highlight the potential upset bids of Belmont! It may be a beautiful season in college basketball.

Go Heels! Go America! Here’s to a memorable opener, and more importantly a long and prosperous season, regardless of the outcome of either game.

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