Celebrating the Duke win

For the first time in four tries with me in the building, Crystal City Sports Pub – home base for relocated Tar Heels in Northern Virginia – witnessed a Carolina victory in a big game. Though I am prone to such superstitions, this is not to imply that the place was itself bad luck. The sports bar is well known in the area and has housed UNC fans long before I moved to the area, and to be truthful, the streak of losses (at Duke 2011, regional final loss to Kentucky, and vs. Duke on Feb. 8) only survived our season-ending win last year because I was in attendance in Chapel Hill.

But I mention this because I was due for a big win experience at that place, which obviously differs starkly with those three losses, and is even a definitively different experience than the one I am most familiar with, being there for 30 or so Carolina victories over less significant opponents over the past two seasons. Shannon was in town this weekend to visit, and she caught the Carolina bar at its best: the packed house booed a friend of mine who joined us supporting her Blue Devils (out of respect, of course), cheered wildly in the first half, waited nervously (and sometimes frustratedly) during the second, and then sang the Alma Mater and fight song after the win. It was a quintessential experience for a remote Tar Heel basketball fan.

As for the game itself, it is difficult to imagine it going any better. Nine offensive possessions and 5:30 of game time, including the first television timeout, passed before Duke got its first defensive stop. Nearly every one of those nine scores came by aggressively exploiting our strengths over Duke, a significant size and skill advantage in the post, to score in the paint or after an offensive rebound and kick out. By that point, the score was already 18-5, and it would be 22-5 before Duke halted the run.

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Nate Britt and new experiences

In my 23 years I’ve been fortunate to experience most aspects of Carolina fanhood – attending a Final Four is perhaps the last major one remaining – but tonight I experienced for the first time one that is probably pretty far down the list for most: I saw a future Tar Heel play in high school. Nate Britt, #17 overall on ESPN’s 2013 rankings and the #2 point guard prospect, has committed to UNC and plays for Gonzaga, an elite Catholic high school in DC. Admittedly, this has not been high on my list, even as dedicated a fan as I am; if it was, I would have gathered up some friends and road-tripped to Kinston to see Reggie Bullock play.

But I’ve always thought it would be novel to see one of the best basketball players in the country play in a setting in which he was demonstrably superior to the other players on the court, before he eventually blossomed into a star player against much better competition in the ACC. Previously I have seen four other high players in person who eventually played at high major college programs, three of whom wound up at Wake Forest (Wake often gets the best players in NC that UNC passes on; those three were Jamie Skeen, Ish Smith, and C.J. Harris, and the fourth was Clemson’s DeMontez Stitt).

When I discovered earlier this year that one of the top prospects in the 2013 class played at a local DC high school, and that he had UNC on his short list of schools, I made a point to catch a game of his, since it was a convenient opportunity to accomplish the goal. It was also an exciting chance to exercise my passionate devotion to the Heels remotely – I can’t attend many games in Chapel Hill, and I live in a place where college basketball is discussed far less than at home, but this is something only Carolina fans who live in Washington can do. Britt made his commitment to UNC in December, but an injury kept him off the court for a stretch and lessened the number of chances I had to see him, pushing the experience back to this weekend’s conference tournament.

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Recovering from last week’s loss: a look back at Carolina’s 2005 comeback win against Duke

In the hour after our stunning loss to Duke last week, my thoughts turned briefly from somber shock to what I would possibly write on the game here. Balancing my desire to preserve some memory of the event – in case we do proceed to win a national title this season – with my desire to avoid discussing or examining it in any way, I thought about titling a blank post simply “No Comment.” A week and two wins later, it isn’t remotely surprising that disappointment over the loss remains strong. I knew that night that you never fully recover when, having a won a game that would fit into the permanent record of an epic rivalry, that game abruptly becomes an instant classic loss. At the least, it will take a win at Cameron or a national title to dull the frustration.

Most of the frustration centers on how radically the narrative of this college basketball season changed in the course of a two minute long sequence of unfortunately flukish events. If any one of no less than ten unlikely occurrences – some our error, some the refs’ error and some bad luck –  goes the other way, we win the game. Win that game, and there are a number of tectonic shifts in the college basketball landscape. Conversation on the game would remember the way that we survived a hot-shooting Duke team at their best to lead after the first half and asserted ourselves as the far superior team in the second. We would be ranked no lower than #4 and probably #3 in the polls, with a solid grip on the ACC regular season title and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky and Syracuse would be looking over their shoulder at our looming shadow as the best team in the country finally getting into gear. Tyler Zeller would have nearly clinched the ACC Player of the Year Award, and Harrison Barnes would have a strong argument himself after taking over the game in the second half.

Conventional wisdom scorns the ‘what if’ talk, but in reality there is little reason to avoid it. It doesn’t diminish their win in any way, but strictly for the purpose of evaluating our prospects for the rest of the season, it absolutely matters that after 38 minutes we were, as we expected, significantly better than Duke. With a one-game sample size and the fact that basketball depends so much on factors outside of the players’ control, far too little had to change to completely reorient all of the conclusions drawn based on the outcome of the game. There are two lessons there, one being to use caution in drawing conclusions based exclusively on who is ahead at the end of a mid-season game. The other is to treasure that in basketball, the nature and rules of the game are designed to produce outcomes reflective of the way the game was played, and that what happened last Wednesday happens very infrequently. If basketball crazy North Carolinians need solace, just think: our favorite sport could be soccer.

While paying ‘what if’ does offer limited if not enduring catharsis, remembering the cumulative history of the Duke v. Carolina rivalry offers relief that is much more potent. Having shared all of the thoughts on last week’s loss that I care to submit for memory, I will now share what proved to be my most effective comfort the day after. I’ve never been much into YouTube, but oh how I was thankful for it on Thursday. A quick search found this video, which I watched five or six times.

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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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