Archive for January, 2012

Turning the corner… On the wins over Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Georgia Tech

Every Carolina fan watching last Thursday night was thinking the exact same thought around halftime of our game against Virginia Tech: it’s happening again. For the second consecutive game, a team entered its game against the Heels on a ice cold streak of poor outside shooting and poor offense generally, only to torch us from behind the arc on the way to a modest halftime lead.

The mid-season crisis (something the 2009 team faced in an 0-2 ACC start) that we all hoped would be confined to one game was starting to feel like a toilsome trend that would last for a while, since we were merely average on offense and opposing back courts were having their way with us, the latter being one of Carolina’s most unfortunate staples.

Thankfully, the Heels altered the narrative in emphatic fashion with a dominating second half, which they followed up with two consecutive home blowouts against two other ACC opponents. Tonight’s win over Georgia Tech was predictable – the Yellow Jackets are, along with Wake Forest and Boston College, one of the worst ACC teams of recent memory – but the N.C. State win was far from it. While most Carolina fans reasonably hoped that we would send the sort of loud statement provided by a game in which we led by 30, there was significant reason to doubt, given that State was off to a good start in ACC play, we were not, and State is wildly overdue to upset us.

Both wins were of the type we grew accustomed to in 2008 and 2009: overwhelm our opponent to take a commanding lead early and then coast through the second half while surrendering a little more of that lead than fans would prefer. That’s another unfortunate Carolina staple. But this team was lacking in legitimate comparisons to the 2009 title squad, and its a significant relief to finally discover one: this team does have, on occasion, enough offense to bury a team early.

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After losing to Florida State by 33…

It has been a busy week, but given the purpose here of recording my experience of Carolina basketball, I thought it was important to write a quick post before we moved on from Saturday’s disaster against Florida State.

As bad as the ACC is, tonight’s game against Virginia Tech will be our final chance for a significant ACC win prior to hosting Duke on February 8 (this game itself is only significant for being on the road, where we are 0 for our last 3). A loss tonight almost ensures that we enter that game with lingering doubts about the caliber and character of this team, and it would be difficult to shake those doubts, especially as they relate to our status as a national title contender, without an emphatic victory in that game.

So to avoid that sort of monumental pressure for a team that doesn’t seem to handle those situations that well yet, we need this win tonight in Blacksburg, and it would be great if it were decisive. If its not decisive, perhaps we play well but require a late score by Harrison Barnes to win, a staple of last season, and of the team’s personality, that has not appeared this year.

For the record, I think its highly unlikely that we lose tonight, even though Blacksburg is a tough place to play and Virginia Tech, like us, has been underwhelming and badly needs a statement win. But I also don’t think we get the corner-turning closure to Saturday. Reality is likely in between, mostly because that seems to be where this team is stuck: UNC has far too much talent playing in a lousy league to fall too far, yet we lack the toughness to escape the doubts and rise above the rest of the league even though our talent says we should. My prediction: Virginia Tech is not good enough to beat us unless we forget to show up on defense for a second game in a row, but we aren’t confident and angry enough to bury them. We will go through some offensive struggles at times – mostly due to lack of focus – that deprive us of an inspiring win.

Some observations on the team:

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Mid-season thoughts

Carolina hits the halfway point of the regular season during tomorrow’s conference opener against Boston College, and I figured it is a fitting time to look at the contrasting assumptions preseason and mid-season that underlie our outlook for the remainder of the year. Luke Winn at CNNSI wrote a similar post a few days ago focused on the national landscape, and one of his preseason assumptions that he now significantly alters was that Carolina was a tier above the rest of the teams in college basketball.

That this has changed is unquestionably true, and its true on a deeper level than is reflected simply by having fallen to #3 in the AP poll. Virtually no one actually thinks Syracuse is the best team in the country, much less the favorite to win the national title; but most of the country now follows Kentucky as the expected favorite and nearly unanimously declared most talented team. Carolina even made a list of “biggest disappointments” of the season’s first two months; their crime was falling from lofty expectations into a four-team top tier including the three teams above and Ohio State.

Those lofty expectations were certainly reflected in the tone of this blog preseason, when much of what I wrote lauded the preeminent status of our program above others as we embarked on yet another season in which Carolina was the team facing national title or major bust circumstances. I did caution that while this year’s team shared that burden in common with the 2009 team, it was not nearly as good or experienced, and that has unfortunately proven too true.

It’s worth considering what exactly has not materialized for Carolina thus far, because it truly is a case of the Heels not meeting expectations; the country expected Syracuse, Ohio State, and especially Kentucky to form the core of a strong national field, and we came down to their level rather than those teams rising to ours. The other, individual assumptions that haven’t yet been confirmed provide the answers to our relative “struggle” and offer hope for significant hope for major improvement, which many seem to think is a possibility reserved only for youthful Kentucky.

Harrison Barnes will be a man among boys as the best player in the nation. If the season ended today, Barnes would not find his name anywhere near the list of  POY candidates, leaving this assumption unfulfilled. He is our leading scorer at 17 ppg and is making nearly half of his attempts behind the arc, but he isn’t carrying our offense and our team in the manner expected of a player who is supposed to be too good for college ball. Part of this is the balanced scoring provided by the boosts in output from John Henson and our reserve guard position. Another reason may be that he just hasn’t yet had enough opportunities, and it may only take the onset of the ACC season to correct that. Barnes was a late bloomer last year, and he could make a similar mid-season surge given the chance to do what he does best, which is make game-changing plays in close contests.

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To make the Boston College game more interesting… (and the inclusion of the blog’s first picture)

I may be alone in this, but I’ve had the Boston College game mentally circled on the Carolina basketball calendar for a few months. And for the record, I marked it when I merely thought they would be bad this year, before I knew what we all know now – that Boston College is worse than bad, they are historically terrible. They are perhaps the worst team in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference (BC’s RPI ranking of 263 should be impossibly low for a major conference team; it places them right behind Presbyterian and NC A&T, in a tie with one of UNC’s worst opponents of the season, Nicholls St., and quite a bit behind another UNC opponent, Mississippi Valley St). They are firmly in the territory of low major conference teams, representing an absolute embarrassment for the ACC.

And thus the reason for having them circled on the calendar: I’ve wanted to embarrass Boston College ever since their Athletic Director, Gene DeFilippo, admitted to blocking UConn’s admission to the ACC on the grounds that he wanted BC to be the only New England team in the conference (and because he is in a lasting feud with UConn). For a more detailed explanation of DeFelippo’s arrogance and ignorance,  see my post on why expansion of the ACC to include Syracuse, Pitt, and hopefully UConn is a positive step.

It will suffice here to say that the most important point I made has been confirmed over the opening two months of the college basketball season: at the moment, Boston College is an utterly worthless member of the ACC, and DeFilippo needs to understand that ACC fans would gladly trade his program for UConn, the Holy Grail of ACC expansion. He shouldn’t have that much clout to block something so great for the conference.

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The Most Memorable Dook Losses (of recent memory)

Tonight was one of those nights when Carolina Nation waited anxiously for about an hour, watching the clock tick down far too slowly and spreading the word electronically that there was a chance Dook was about to go down. In  my case, I was following the game sparingly on my phone, so as to participate in the joy but refrain from jinxing it. There are those that disagree, but I’ve long thought that hatred of Dook is one of the defining traits of the most ardent Tar Heels, and that the celebration of their losses is one of our most sacred rituals.

The rivalry needs no further feeding of the fire – both teams are and will forever be among college basketball’s top tier, the only rivalry in college basketball that boasts of that caliber of competition. Though its origin lies in past competitive match-ups of top ranked teams, it is no longer sustained by those individual games, but rather by the larger historical comparison of each program’s collective record, and the mutual dislike based both on that comparison and on the lasting cultural clash between relocated Yankees and proud Southerners. It is for this reason that Dook’s loss is always our gain, explaining why I was united in celebration through social media when Temple finally completed their upset tonight.

As such, tonight seemed like a good occasion for a list of my most memorable Dook losses. I haven’t posted in a while, and tonight’s loss was the most significant event of the past two weeks for Carolina fans. A few honorable mentions to start: the last second 2008 loss to Pitt that I watched at home with my dad, yelling and waking my mom at the last second Pitt three; returning from snow football in 2010 to learn that Georgetown had beaten Dook handily; watching Dook lose to Maryland that year to stumble into a share of the ACC title in one of the conference’s worst seasons.

10) March 8, 2007 to N.C. State: A bad loss for a self-destructing Dook team at the hands of a young Wolfpack team, in the ACC tournament, Coach K’s most friendly confines. The game wrapped up during the minutes before a Campus Crusade meeting as most of the guys excitedly huddled around phones.

9) February 26, 2011 to Virginia Tech: The Hokie seniors deserved this signature win, especially since they got mistreated by the Selection Committee again two weeks later. It also paved the way for the Heels to clinch the ACC regular season title outright with a win against Dook in the season’s final game.

8) March 22, 2008 to West Virginia: A year after losing in the first round, Dook stumbled in the second. They would fall in the third the following season, allowing perfectly for Carolina fans to mock their marginal improvements. We made similar improvements over the same span: Elite Eight to Final Four to National Champion.

7) March 26, 2009 to Villanova: We all had a feeling that Carolina was headed for a national title, and it was made even more sweet as Duke reached what seemed to be a bottoming-out. Talk of Dook’s elite status falling was already prevalent after their loss the previous season, and this marked their fifth consecutive loss before the Elite Eight (we went four out of five years over the same span). And of course, a week after Villanova blew out Dook, we blew out Villanova in the Final Four.

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