On the two losses and Saturday morning college basketball

Thanksgiving break and then a week-long work trip to Arizona caused an extended hiatus from the blog, one that unfortunately coincided with a nationally relevant up-and-down stretch for the Heels. It was never my goal to provide timely breakdowns of game-by-game happenings (that should be left to the ESPN folks), so the break can partly be attributed to a lack of urgency on my part. There wasn’t a whole lot new to say, especially after the Kentucky loss. But as my goal is to chronicle my experience of Carolina basketball, there were some observations that I would have liked to publish a while ago, and will just now get to. Here goes:

UNLV 90, UNC 80

Those rare completely unforeseen losses such as the one we took to UNLV frustrate Carolina fans in a way that exemplifies how spoiled we are as fans. Psychologically preparing for most games with the comfortable assurance of victory is a luxury not afforded to most programs, yet when one of those allegedly assured victories ends up as a loss, the disappointment for us is even more profound. I was certainly guilty of this: I entered the weekend looking forward to the upcoming games as holiday family entertainment, obviously leading to a feeling of being cheated during the disaster against UNLV.

Rather than understanding that early season road losses to good but not elite teams remain a part of college basketball even in this new era, our immediate impulse is to search for explanations. In my case, it was to identify chronic problems with the team indicating that we cannot possibly be as good as our expectations; for those less negative than me it was to find comparisons between Saturday’s loss and the surprising setbacks experienced by the 2005 and 2009 teams.

Yet after the frustration settles, reality is somewhere in between. The loss differs from the one to Santa Clara in 2005 in that there wasn’t a significant starter on the bench suspended, and it differs from the one in 2009 to BC in that it didn’t come at the hands of a team with NBA talent playing at their best on offense. Not to mention the fact that the 2009 team made that loss a close game, while against UNLV we lied down and took punches right until the end.

Yet that does not mean there is a chronic problem that diminishes the ultra-high expectations for this team, nor even that should indicate that we are not the best team in the country. This team is nowhere near the level of 2009’s, but since that 2009 team is one of the best in the history of the sport, it doesn’t have to be. Much of this loss can be blamed on the differences in style between 2012 and 2009 rather than differences in quality. Though our most recent win against Evansville suggests potential for otherwise, this version of Carolina is not one to blow teams out of the gym with its scoring. We hang on to victories with our defense rather than dare teams to outscore us, and when the defense lapses, we aren’t often going to score our way out of trouble. Late last season, however, the defense – and clutch late game play – was there more often than not, and we remained a tough team to beat.

The point here is that this team is far more susceptible to losses like this than 2009 Carolina ever was, and even 2009 Carolina lost three regular season games. We’ve come back down to earth a little bit, but are nonetheless one of the best teams in the country. The main lesson may end up being that there is more than one route to a national championship. 2005 and 2009 took the team of destiny, no one is going to beat us when it counts route; 2012 doesn’t have that option – we lack the offensive firepower to control our own destiny, and a hot shooting Kentucky team will beat us in March.

But maybe Kentucky will be cold. Carolina hasn’t yet experienced this under Roy, but as Florida learned in 2006 and Duke in 2010, one doesn’t have to be the team of destiny to a win a national title.

Kentucky 73, UNC 72

This was one of the stranger Carolina viewing experiences of my life, and especially after the nature of the game, it will certainly be one of the more lasting. After finishing up a long and fast-paced week in Arizona for ALEC’s large winter meeting, I went out with coworkers to celebrate Friday night, returned to my hotel room and went to bed a little after 2:00, woke up around 9:00, packed my stuff, and sat down to watch the game in my hotel room at 10:00 in the morning. A brief walk through the lobby discovered that all of the televisions there were showing college football. I couldn’t believe that people in the western half of the U.S. do this every weekend.

I had to request a late check-out to ensure that I could finish the game in my room, and when my request was denied, I hung my “Do not Disturb” sign and watched; fortunately the housekeeping folks did not come before the end. Had I watched a game in this manner 20 years ago, I would have felt very distant from North Carolina, but following the game on Twitter and constantly texting friends throughout makes it difficult for that to ever be the case.

As for the game, most national media hinted at this, but I never found a writer to say it explicitly it: it is unreasonable to draw significant conclusions based on the specific outcome of a game that ended in the manner of this one. If we hit a shot on the last possession and win the game, it changes nothing about the body of work demonstrated by either team during the first 39 minutes of action. The national media also came to a consensus on this point: that was the best played game of college basketball by two evenly matched teams since 2008.

Having acknowledged those points, it still worries me that we shot so well from the 3-point line and remained in position to lose the game, even as Kentucky didn’t play to its potential for most of the game. Carolina fans should hope that either the match-up looks significantly different on a neutral floor or that the outside shooting we showed in this game becomes a fixture rather than an anomaly.

No one doubts that since they start three freshmen, including one at point guard, Kentucky has the potential to get a lot better by March, which doesn’t bode well for us unless one or both of the above is true. The third option, of course, is the underrated possibility that we too could improve drastically by March. Barnes isn’t even playing at the level he was late last year, perhaps he just naturally starts seasons slow. We haven’t seen any significant contributions yet from McAdoo, who is supposed to be a top-ten NBA talent and who dominated the McDonald’s game. We also haven’t seen what this team looks like when P.J. Hairston and/or Reggie Bullock learn to play enough defense to warrant 30 minutes a game. Right now this team is best when Dexter Strickland is on the floor, and Strickland is quietly having a very good start to the season; however, the scenario in which this team reaches its ceiling is one that involves the Bullock/Hairston combo stealing his minutes and transforming our offense.

As I mentioned above, this 2012 team lacks the offense to bail itself out and control its own destiny, though Bullock and Hairston could change that if given the chance. While watching the second half of the Kentucky game it occurred to me that I was watching the clock tick down urgently, willing it to tick faster; it felt as if we were barely hanging on, and the fewer possessions remaining the better. That was never true for 2009, when the longer the game went the worse it got for our opponent (see our defeat of Duke at Cameron, when Duke out-scored us 52-44 in the first half, only to see us drop 57 in the second to run them out of their own gym in a 101-87 shootout).

Hopefully this is nothing more than a curious difference between two great Carolina teams. But there are two other options, one heading in either direction: our lack of offense becomes our downfall in March, or we end up discovering what a fast-paced team with both back court and front court scoring options looks like when it can also play elite defense.

    • Jake
    • December 10th, 2011

    One thing that’s reassuring about the Kentucky loss…while the scoring from behind the arc was unusual, and we probably can’t count on getting that consistently, we also probably won’t have many games where we shoot as poorly as we did on 2’s. We were terrible inside the arc, missed a lot of post-up opportunities, Zeller looked flustered (making mistakes that were correctable), and Barnes failed to impact the game much (part of which can be attributed to Kidd-Gilchrist, but part of which is also just him playing on a slightly bum ankle and not feeling comfortable cutting hard on it). We managed to draw 2 fouls over the first 16 minutes or so of the second half, attributable mainly to poor shot selection inside the arc (too many jumpers, too much twisting and contorting to avoid contact), and that won’t hold either. So, while the 3’s were falling, nothing else was, and it doesn’t seem like an entirely anomalous offensive performance.

    • bweynand
    • December 10th, 2011

    That’s a good point, especially when you consider we only got 24 minutes out of Barnes. If Barnes plays 35 minutes instead, that has a a significant impact on the game. And I don’t know what’s up with Zeller right now, but I could see him recovering and showing more strength down the stretch.

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