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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

On the Carrier Classic, UNCA, and the 2-0 start

As many have already written, the Carrier Classic never actually stopped feeling like an exhibition game with the surrounding spectacle as the main event. Fortunately for Carolina we came out with the win, since a loss would have certainly brought home the realization that it was, in fact, a real season opener, and launched a bevy of frustrated accusations that the conditions prevented a legitimate contest. All parties involved should be glad that the team that was supposed to win won.

It is true that the spectacle, the slippery floor, the strange sight lines,  and perhaps the wind and the temperature, too, prevented either team from ever getting into the flow of the game. The Heels pulled away because we were finally able to get into our transition for a few isolated stretches, but for most of the game, we looked out of sync, evidenced by Kendall Marshall’s stat line of five assists and five turnovers.

But as SI’s Seth Davis wrote after the game, the collective experience of the event is one that should be continued, even if the basketball component of it unsurprisingly did not measure up. As a fan watching on television you still had clear views of the water and skyline in many of the angles on the game, so at no point did you forget that you were watching a game played outdoors. The most enjoyable aspect to me remains that the entire nation fixated on a particular regular season college basketball game for a day, and that the game involved North Carolina. To have the President introduce the game, and even to have celebrities in the audience and participating in halftime events, are generally thrills reserved for the high levels of professional sports, but Friday night it was college basketball, and specifically UNC.

UNC 67, Michigan State 55

There are many things one can attribute to the strange conditions, but the enormous rebounding advantage we surrendered to Michigan State, especially on their offensive boards, wouldn’t seem to be one of them. Tom Izzo-coached teams are typically among the nation’s best at rebounding, but so are we given last year’s performance by Henson and the significant height advantage we have over almost every team we will face. Hopefully we can write this off as an anomaly moving forward into the season.

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Carolina’s place in a new era of college basketball

In his eight year tenure as the head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams has essentially coached three distinct basketball teams. Those teams are roughly (though not that roughly) defined as the groups of players from 2003-2005, from 2005-2009, and from 2009-2012. In the current state of college basketball, and especially in our case since the first two of those eras concluded after mass NBA departures from National Championship teams, there isn’t a whole lot of continuous overlap as there used to be: only David Noel, Rayshawn Terry,  Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis played significant roles on teams in separate groups.

As noted above, Roy is 2-2 thus far winning national titles with his teams, and Carolina fans who lived through Dean Smith going 2-for-a whole bunch realize how fortunate we are to have experienced the last seven years. It is partly a reflection of this new state of the sport; there are fewer really good teams each year, so the programs such as North Carolina that consistently field really good teams have a better shot. That we fell short in a loaded 2008 Final Four field before cruising to a relatively easy title a year later demonstrates this point clearly.

But it in no way devalues the accomplishments of Roy’s squads; to win a national title you are only asked to be the best team in a given year, and there is no question that Roy has done a better job than anyone in the country fielding title-competitive teams consistently. Other powerhouse programs, such as Duke and UCLA, have faltered in this respect. More importantly, with the easier path comes far greater expectations, and this may actually be the defining characteristic of this new era of college basketball.

Continue reading

Thoughts on the back court

Kendall Marshall: Even after Marshall made his very loud splash onto the college basketball scene last season, there remained national sports journalists who were unwilling to label him great, at least not great in the same way that his immediate predecessors Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson were great. One went so far as to relegate him to merely “solid.”

There were sound reasons for this suggested contrast – Marshall certainly is not as quick up the floor or to the basket as either. But it was clear at season’s end that the difference is in style and not in degree of greatness. As I wrote here last spring, on a per-minute basis Marshall’s freshmen season set him on course to be one of the elite passers in NCAA history.  To long-tenured fans of Carolina basketball, it is plainly apparent that he looks for his teammates and creates scoring opportunities in ways not seen since Ed Cota, and as indicated above, that isn’t for lack of great point guards.

Because of his impact on the effectiveness of his teammates, he is arguably the most important player on the roster. The marginal gap between Marshall and his replacement (sliding Strickland to point guard) is a gulf larger even than the one between Barnes’ and a Reggie Bullock/P.J. Hairston platoon; an  injury would be catastrophic. Judging by his occasional outlet of emotion yet distinct level-headed demeanor, Marshall is a solid kid who passionately loves Carolina basketball (he committed to UNC in September of his sophomore year of high school).  Perhaps other than Barnes, there is no player I want more to watch win a national title.

Dexter Strickland: Strickland is in an awkward spot – he is the only starter not listed on the Naismith Preseason Top 50, and he has a fairly loose grip on his starter’s minutes (at least at shooting guard) with Bullock and Hairston looking to steal considerable time, particularly on days when either is shooting well. Strickland has struggled to endear himself to fans with occasional poor shot selection and turnovers, but I think this year that changes in a major way. The maturity with which he has not only accepted but embraced his role as defensive stopper is remarkable, and at several points this season, he is going to finish on the break or make a steal at a key moment and remind us why he is a crucial part of this team. There are a handful of Danny Green moments that defined his identity as a role player; Strickland will collect his and cement his legacy.

Continue reading

Thoughts on the front court

Harrison Barnes: There is little to say that wouldn’t merely repackage what I already wrote last spring, what ESPN wrote last week, and what is commonly understood around the country. Barnes is the best player in the country on a team full of best players in the country, and as the first player of his caliber to return for his sophomore season since the NBA’s one-and-done rule, he might be the best player in college basketball in several years. He is an usually mature individual who made a very strange decision to return, seemingly because he wanted to win so badly, and he reportedly has an insane work ethic. Add to that his late-game play last season, which literally made the different between winning and losing in at least five ACC games. For all of these reasons, there is no question that were he to stay beyond this season (highly unlikely), he could approach Ford-Jordan-Hansbrough status in Carolina basketball lore. Two years, even with a national title, likely isn’t enough to achieve that level of reverence, but he is at least on his way to joining the next tier in a program full of college basketball luminaries.

Tyler Zeller: Thinking back to the summer of 2008 and watching the recruitment hype of Tyler Zeller as he prepared to arrive in Chapel Hill, it is obvious to conclude that we didn’t quite get what we expected. He isn’t as effective facing the basket, was a little soft on defense early in his career, and wasn’t able to contribute as a sophomore nearly as much as expected. But he arrived late last year as one of the premier post players in the country and enters this season as an All-America candidate, finally realizing his heralded recruiting status. He may actually be one of the more underrated players in the college basketball landscape, simply because there is nothing flashy about his game (except his ability as a seven-footer to run the floor) and because he quietly raised his game to Preseason Naismith Top 50 status after having been somewhat forgotten as a freshman and sophomore. College basketball fans respect his game, but they should remember that he was a top-ten recruit four years ago, and that he was finally playing like it in the NCAA tournament last season.

John Henson: I always liked about Danny Green that he couldn’t keep himself from smiling on the basketball court, especially after triggering a run with a three-pointer or making a key defensive block. For many players smiling just isn’t their style, but as a former player and on-court smiler myself, its fulfilling to see someone experiencing such joy at meaningful success in intense competition. Henson is on a level of his own in this category, and coupled with his relatively frequent poor shot selection and the colossal mistake he nearly made at the end of the Washington game last March, he presents a conflicting persona of extremely likable but excessively goofy. I have a hunch that we will see more of the likable side this year, as Henson is a year older and increasingly comfortable with his role as a shot-blocker and rebounder. He says that he wants to expand his offense (and after seeing him drain a couple of outside shots during Cobb court pickup games, he definitely has it), but he understands that in most games this year he won’t have to. He is a more mature basketball player than he gets credit for, and with his personality and ability to make plays no one else can (ending the Washington game by deflecting the in-bound pass), he is one of the more fun to watch players Carolina has had.

Continue reading