Ridiculously early preseason polls

Sports journalism has an advantage over other forms in the percentage of articles that are written purely because they are just that fun to read and to write. For no other reason did Dick Vitale, Andy Katz, and Luke Winn release preseason rankings for 2011-2012 within days of UConn’s title victory over Butler.

They are early in the sense that we have to wait seven long months in which college basketball sadly will be removed from the forefront of our minds. But they are by no means too early. With the exception of a handful of undecided players on the NBA draft, we know the core look of each team’s roster, and that will not change in the long doldrums of summer. The good news for the Heels: we are near the top regardless of whether the best player in the country decides to return.

Andy Katz:

1. Kentucky 2. North Carolina 3. Ohio State 4. Texas 5. Connecticut 6. Duke. 7. Syracuse

Luke Winn:

1. North Carolina 2. Ohio State. 3. Duke. 4. Syracuse. 5. Kentucky 6. Kansas 7. Florida

Luke Winn ought to be checked on, making a relatively simple task a difficult one with his nonsensical undervaluing of Kentucky. Among these top teams, three easily separate themselves as the top tier, and those are North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State. No one else closely matches the depth of talent and experience of those three teams. Katz acknowledges that if Barnes returnes, he will bump Carolina to the #1 spot. I agree with the move, since we will have top-level talent and depth at every position, no obvious holes with the arrival of P.J. Hairston to shoot the outside shot, the best player in the country, a complete assortment of role players, and no freshmen starting.

But it is admittedly a tough call with Kentucky, who will have just as much talent but with much less experience. Their freshmen class alone would likely rank as the #2 team in the country, consisting of four top-20 players, three of whom are the best power forward, best small forward, and best point guard in the class, respectively. Add to that the return of two starters as seniors from this year’s team and most likely a sophomore Doron Lamb. Freshmen will play most of the critical roles for Calipari, as usual, but there is notable experience coming back.

In a real surprise, I think both Katz and Winn are too generous to Duke, significantly undervaluing the difficulty of replacing Nolan Smith. Smith carried them on his back through much of this season, and he ought to have been the National Player of the Year for doubling as one of the nation’s best scorers and best facilitators of his teammates. As Winn points out, Duke will have the most talented three point shooting backcourt in the country. But they had that this season, as well, and their dependence on it led them to occasional struggles. Next season, they will be even more one-dimensionally dependent on it, and without the toughness, clutch play, and experience of Smith. There will be long stretches of struggling to put points on the board, and that ought to relegate Duke at least behind Syracuse, UConn, and Florida.

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Already looking to next year

When Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith announced they were returning to Duke after their accidental run to a national title, I set a very specific and unusual bar for attaining satisfaction with the outcome of the 2010-2011 season: if we can just make it through this year without another Duke title (this one would have been on purpose, they were the favorite), I’ll count myself relieved and we will move on to next year. In the midst of our early season struggles it was becoming even clearer that this was our primary goal, and it maintained itself despite our awesome resurgence into the collection of national title contenders.

This is what made the night Arizona whacked Duke the most glorious of the tournament. As I wrote that night in response to a friend: in the grand scheme of college basketball history you measure Final Fours and national titles, and this was a year that Duke should have had but missed badly. Each individual season eventually melds into the long running narrative of the Carolina-Duke rivalry, and thanks to Derrick Williams and company, we still lead in the most important category, 5-4.

The Kentucky loss stung badly, mostly because this team was so much fun to watch as they drastically exceeded the expectations for such a young team. But it stung a little less knowing Duke was resting safely back in Durham, and it stung less for me than a Duke title would have a week later.

This line of thought, though it sounds crazy, was validated this week when Tyler Zeller and John Henson announced they were bypassing the NBA draft. As much as this past season was Duke’s to win, next will certainly now be ours, and all of this season’s maturation was building toward it. We are likely the preseason #1 team, regardless of whether the best player in the country is playing for us or the Washington Wizards (I sincerely hope its us).This time the bar of satisfaction will again be a national title, and Duke gets relegated to secondary status in the ACC. As Luke DeCock wrote in the News and Observer, the pendulum has swung.

Bleeding Blue: Introduction

While watching Carolina play basketball I find myself filled with a constant flow of thoughts and a desire to ensure memory of the most significant moments, and I can think of at least a small handful of friends and family who, based on past interactions, will enjoy reading and commenting in this forum, and sharing in the collective experience that is Carolina basketball.

It is important to state at the outset that this is not an illusion of adding something to the already over-saturated access to online reporting and commentary. We can also immediately dispense with any notion of objectivity: this is journalism Samuel Adams style, with a clear motive, bias, and set of assumptions, albeit broad ones that may require some tweaking. What I am interested in is preserving, for myself as much as anyone else, an account of my experience of Carolina basketball, which is admittedly of enormous, and arguably irrational, importance. Through this I hope to provide a clear and thorough statement of the greatness of our state’s most recognizable cultural institution, and why there is no better sports family of which to be a part than the one based out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

For the better part of my childhood I was intensely envious of my parents, who had lived through the original glory days when Dean Smith built the program into a national legend. More than that, they twice knew what it was to experience a national championship, the truest Holy Grail of success for our program, and for me only a mystical moment in the past that I knew had transpired three times. Those three teams, 1957, 1982, and 1993, I knew inside and out from Carolina history – I had watched the game tapes of ’82 and ’93 enough times I almost could have convinced myself I actually remembered them. That as a five year old I theoretically could have remembered the 1993 title (I remember the epic blizzard that hit North Carolina that same month) compounded the frustration, and I can distinctly remember wondering after the top-ranked 1998 team led by Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter bowed out in the Final Four for the second year in a row whether I would ever experience what my parents did. Perhaps I was just unlucky to have been born too late, I thought, which seemed validated by our struggles over the next four seasons.

Clearly I was too young to have enough faith. It is now the year 2011, and I have now experienced two national championships in a five year period, during one of which I was fortunate enough to be a student at UNC. Roy seems to have the Heels perennially competing for titles in a way even Dean never did, reaching the Elite Eight or better in five of his eight seasons. It would appear that these are the new glory days, as we look forward to 2011-2012 as the favorite to complete a doubling of our national title count in an eight season span. The jealous kid has been replaced by a very thankful alum that realizes how lucky North Carolinians are to live and die by a team that wins – a lot.

Which brings me to the one additional point this blog will hope to make clear: that subjecting oneself to valuing Carolina basketball with such high importance is, despite the torment of occasional loss and ups and downs inherent to sports, ultimately a perfectly rational, and rewarding thing to do.

As I said, we’re starting with the motives and the biases; the experiences will speak for themselves. Here goes.