Posts Tagged ‘ 2005 ’

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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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.

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The most anticipated seasons in (my) North Carolina basketball history

The tipping point that inspired me to break my off-season hiatus came this week when the blog Rush the Court (of which I am not a reader, credit Twitter for the referral) published their season preview for UNC and called this season “the most anticipated season in North Carolina basketball history.” It was not a subtle remark made mid-sentence either, but a bold statement appearing as the first line of the story.

It is remarks like these that remind me why I would not have enjoyed a career in sports journalism. Designed purely to serve as a hype-generating, cleverly dramatic opener, the statement is at least unnecessary. Worse, though, is that it is unequivocally and colossally untrue. It takes a blindly superficial attempt at hype (so often typical of sports media) and a shockingly short memory to make such a ridiculous statement in the fall of 2012, only three years removed from the 2009 basketball season.

Granted, the author of the post claims that this season tops 2009. He is wildly incorrect, and that he even attempts the claim shows that his historical perspective of Carolina basketball is seriously lacking. In truth, for a program accustomed to preseason #1 rankings – and to being unfairly loaded with talent – 2012 is closer to the norm than it is to the historically anomalous 2009 season, which even for Carolina presented an unprecedented challenge of hype.

Only in 2009 did four players, rather than three, spurn the NBA, three of whom declared before withdrawing and all of whom were rising juniors or seniors. Far more importantly, since admittedly Harrison Barnes’ decision to return is the most bizarre of the lot, only in 2009 had the Heels been a #1 seed with essentially the same team two years running. In both tournaments we fell short in dramatic losses, but progressed to the Final Four in 2008, one round farther than in 2007. Only in 2009 did we return one of the greatest players in conference history and one of the most beloved among Carolina fans, and only in 2009 were all of our core players juniors and seniors that we had been watching perform at a historically high level for two full seasons, becoming highly invested them in ways that we haven’t yet, purely as a function of time, with Barnes and his teammates.

In his autobiography, Roy Williams speaks of persistent sleepless nights leading up to the 2009 season. If after 2012, it is Ohio State or Kentucky cutting down the nets, Carolina will have failed, no doubt, but people will understand. In 2009, that was certainly not the case; it would have been incomprehensible for anyone but the Heels to win, especially after early season thrashings of Notre Dame and Michigan State. Even more difficult personally for Roy was his attachment to the team, and particularly to Hansbrough, that made the prospect of not winning a title agonizing to a degree that falling short this year could not possibly attain.

It seems odd to make this argument at the present time – it would be more fun to agree with the author, given that it is 2012, not 2009. But I was there as a student, and perhaps for that reason his error struck a nerve. But alas, in honor of the approaching arrival of the 2012 season, one that is highly anticipated for a team that, while not 2009, could be historically good and does seem to have a uniquely strong connection to the students and fans: an actual ranking of the most anticipated seasons in my short lifetime of Carolina basketball history.

1) 2008-2009: As mentioned above, no other season comes close. We had never experienced that level of anticipation before, and only perfectly unusual circumstances would allow for it again.

2) 2004-2005: Carolina fans should be thankful that Roy is two for two in delivering national championships during the years in which we were expected to win. Dean Smith was one for a whole bunch of seasons, not because of poor coaching, but because that is often the reality of college basketball (in 1982 Carolina was the preseason favorite, but in 1993 we began the year #7 and were not ranked #1 until early March). The 2005 team was not only expected to contend for the title, but was expected to redeem at last Carolina basketball from the abyss of the previous six seasons. That journey was best exemplified by a senior class that went 8-20 as freshmen and a trio of juniors that represented one of the most heralded recruiting classes in program history. Both groups weathered the storm of initial underachievement and the firing of Matt Doherty, and even Roy Williams at the time brought his additional pressure of having never won a national title. We are fortunate that this squad got the job done, as it set us on course for the most successful five season stretch in program history, and having not won a national title in over a decade, it was a long anticipated event.

3) 2011-2012: It doesn’t take long to arrive at the present season, which, for all of its contrast to 2009, is itself an anomaly, especially for the current state of college basketball. It was such a shock that this team stayed together without NBA defection that we forget how young this team is; we haven’t yet had time to fully invest ourselves as fans in Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, especially in the case of Barnes, from whom many of us had resolved not to expect more than one season. In any case, the gap between our talent and the rest of the country, excepting Kentucky, may be the largest it has ever been. This team, like 2005, hopes to culminate the escape of its own abyss (2009-2010 and early 2010-2011), and like 2009, returns after a dramatic near miss last season. Unique to this year’s squad is the special connection these players seem to have to each other; I cannot remember another core group of players who were unanimous in the level of joy this team has for playing basketball in Chapel Hill. Capping off the anticipation is that a title this season would be our third in eight seasons, placing Roy Williams’ tenure rightfully at the pinnacle of the sport as its most recent dynasty.

4) 2002-2003: This season did not end as happily as the first two, but there is no questioning its spot on the list nonetheless. Carolina fans had toiled through an embarrassing 8-20 season the year before, and resorted to following intently the developing stories of the incoming recruiting class, especially local South Carolina superstar Ray Felton. As they were one of college basketball history’s most highly regarded classes, and given our program’s prolonged struggle, Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were stamped as nothing short of saviors before they set foot on campus. Less than a month into the season the three freshmen led us to an upset of Roy’s highly ranked Kansas team, and Carolina fans were relieved to again be in the national spotlight. Stumbling down the stretch led to the firing of Matt Doherty, but early on at least this season was anticipated at a historic level.

5) 1997-1998: This year’s team contends with 1982 and 2009 as one of Carolina’s most talented groups, though unfortunately it would eventually fall short in the Final Four for the second season in a row. Nonetheless, they returned nearly everyone from that first Final Four team, including juniors Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, both of whom would be top-five NBA selections after the season. They were deep with NBA talent for a supporting cast, and they were guided by one of college basketball’s all-time assist leaders, Ed Cota. Additionally, this season was Bill Guthridge’s first as the replacement for Dean Smith, the first coaching change for the program in nearly 40 years. I can remember as a ten year old child thinking that my time had finally come to experience a national title I would remember, and wondering if my generation was somehow cursed when it ended. That level of anticipation earns this season the final spot on the list.

The Roy Williams model for building national champions: strategy or luck?

Thanks to a tip from Shannon, I read this post from a UNC recruiting blogger offering his interpretation of Carolina’s ability to keep so many highly talented players in school. It’s a nice theory: Carolina and Duke regularly pass on the guys who would turn pro after one season in favor of high-character players that are committed to staying and winning, capitalizing on their status to be “selective about skill and personality.”

There are elements of this that are absolutely true. Character is a major factor in Roy’s recruitment of players, and even a casual college basketball fan recognizes a fundamental difference between his model and that of John Calipari at Kentucky. It’s also true that keeping players in school as been the most critical component of college basketball success over the last decade, and Carolina’s two titles during that span – and its set up for a third next season – especially demonstrate this trend.

But to suggest intentionality by Roy to become the anti-Calipari, the coach who actively seeks players who will stay three years in order to win a title when they do, is an idealistic and inaccurate picture of Carolina basketball. As much as we want to think otherwise, Roy’s players – though they may not have a singular focus on getting to the NBA as soon as possible – do have it as their end goal, and a quick look at our most recent NBA prospects immediately dismisses this blogger’s theory. It is nonsense to derive theories of this nature from the decisions of thirteen individuals, and that is the most problematic aspect of his argument: the history of Carolina basketball, and his interpretation if it, would have to be radically different if merely two or three of these players had made alternative decisions. And it very nearly happened:

Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright: Two of the top recruits in the country who both turned pro after one season.

Ed Davis: Returned for his sophomore season despite establishing himself as an early pick, but only one more season was enough to convince him he would rather be in the NBA.

Sean May, Rashad McCants, and Raymond Felton: It is difficult to know for certain how close these three were to leaving after 2004, if at all, but it is certainly true that their decision to return was a calculated benefit from a draft stock perspective even had we not won the 2005 title, after which all three became lottery picks.

Tyler Hansbrough: He is one of two players on this list that fits the blogger’s theory, but for that reason it should be cautioned that his extremely exceptional case is exactly that: extremely exceptional, even strictly within the realm of Carolina basketball.

Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green: The exception of Hansbrough is contrasted with the decisions of his teammates and fellow national champions. The textual critic in me reads the statements of each player following their decision to withdraw from the draft in 2008 and notices that all three reference the negative results of testing their draft stock as their reason for staying. Danny Green stayed and cemented his legacy as one of my favorite Tar Heels ever (I am looking now at his jersey hanging on my wall). But the fact remains that these three returned only because their stock wasn’t where it needed to be to justify the jump, and in doing so drastically changed the course of college basketball history. The ability for a blogger to even speculate on this suggested recruiting strategy of Roy Williams teetered on the difficult decisions of three individuals who declared for the draft and subsequently withdrew; had they chosen the alternative, we are not having this conversation.

Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller: In this team there may be a general exception; it certainly appears that the desire to win was a bigger factor for these three than with past groups, but that itself does not reveal a recruiting strategy. Only Barnes does not have the potential for substantial gain by staying, and we will never know what Henson, and in turn Barnes, would have decided had John been a projected top five pick as he was coming out of high school. Thankfully, that is irrelevant, and I will ruminate on this special group in a later post.

Roy recruited Barnes so heavily no doubt because he thought there was a chance he would stay. But he took a risk there nonetheless, just as he did, and lost, with Wright, Davis, and Williams. UNC recruits from among the top players in the country, all of whom want to play in the NBA, and actually to adjust our strategy as this blogger suggests would come at our expense. That the 2005, 2009, and 2012 teams exist as they do reflect a perfect storm of varying motivations, but in most cases a calculated assessment of NBA draft stock that came back negative was a significant factor in a player’s decision to return.

The point here is not that Carolina players do not want to stay in school and win – many others would have turned pro in the same circumstances, so there is no questioning that a desire to win and be a part of a great tradition plays a role in keeping players in school. The point is that it isn’t always the determining factor, certainly not often enough to establish a trend, and that Roy has benefited from, among other factors, a little bit of luck.