The (potentially) post-Marshall tournament

If not for one fleeting moment in Sunday’s game against Creighton, we would be reading stories this week on how North Carolina was the only team in the tournament to look as impressive as Kentucky in the opening weekend. Drowned out by the annoying group-think hysteria surrounding the Wildcats is the fact that for a few minutes in the second half against Iowa State Kentucky actually looked vulnerable. Kentucky made an impressive run that prompted the media to conveniently forget that part of the narrative, but nonetheless, Kentucky, like every other top team in the tournament looked, at least for a few moments, like it could possibly lose a game.

Every other top team, that is, except North Carolina. We jumped all over Creighton early and afforded ourselves the luxury of letting them back in the game – only in a relative sense – before burying them down the stretch. At no point did it appear that we could possibly lose the game. We were not vulnerable.

Most in the media have only made passing reference to this truth as they wish farewell to our chances at winning the national title, and for some even our chances at advancing to the Final Four. To their credit, a small minority have recognized that a logical conclusion of our outstanding showing this weekend is that we retain more than enough talent to win the matchups before us and continue to advance without Kendall Marshall. But I haven’t seen anyone write that we looked as good or better than Kentucky on Sunday; to most there is an ever-widening gulf between the Wildcats and the rest.

That last part is a direct result of Marshall’s injury. Without question, there is a significant gap between Carolina minus Marshall and Kentucky. But the steady stream of stories announcing the end of our title hopes, and thus crowning Kentucky as champion before the games are played, is an irritating indictment of the hysterical sensationalism of sports journalism. Even before the tournament, there was far too much talk of Kentucky as the overwhelming favorite, and many willing to take them over the field in tournament; they have been hyped more than teams with similar regular season records in the past, and seemingly for any reason other than actual results. The two primary culprits for the Kentucky fever are the obsession with the freakish talents of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (both of whom are experiencing unprecedented gaps between their accolades and their actual production) and advanced stats, which show Kentucky as statistically dominating its competition on both ends of the floor.

Advanced stats would mean more in a seven game series format, but in a tournament that is one and done, Kentucky’s talent and advanced statistical edge is allowing the Wildcats to escape far too easily their extremely weak conference schedule and occasional failure of the eye test – Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are raw offensively and the team can suffer for it. Even more importantly, the team is run almost exclusively by freshmen and sophomores. Until proven otherwise, we should all be skeptical of such a team in a one and done format.

Kentucky did everything that was asked of them to prove themselves as the best team in the country during the regular season. The point here is not to contest that, but simply to push back slightly on the insane hype.

For UNC, the most important objection to the hype is this: how many times in the tournament do you see a team consisted of one great player and a bunch of average ones win a game that it shouldn’t? We have at least two candidates to become that great player, and no one on our team is average. We are shooting to win a title, not one game, but it is about matchups, and our road has already and could continue to become unexpectedly easier.

It is easy to criticize sports fan generally as excessively optimistic, but the reality is that the history of the NCAA tournament has its share of unexpected champions. A Carolina team that even without Marshall would boast six McDonald’s All-Americans should hardly fall into that category, and that emphasizes the steep jump those in the media are taking to relegate the Heels to an afterthought. Put Stilman White on the floor, and we are more talented than every team in the country except Kentucky; put Justin Watts on the floor, and we at least impose an interestingly elite size and athleticism advantage on the defensive end, while remaining more talented than every team in the country except Kentucky.

It is a stretch to call Carolina  an underdog, but nevertheless, that is what is happening; our players have embraced it (see Barnes’ comments about Doug Gottlieb during this week’s press conference), yet we are still as focused on being the aggressor as usual. We will enjoy the benefits of our new role – lower expectations, the ability to surprise, the hope of something unusually epic – while in our own minds we maintain our traditional status and confidence.

For the fans, it only makes sense to proceed with well-founded optimism that a team with a history of winning when it should might seize a rare moment to win when the consensus says that it shouldn’t.

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