Posts Tagged ‘ 2012 ’

Kendall Marshall’s wrist, Creighton, and the #PassFir5t movement

Silly as it seems, especially to the generation of Carolina fans who do not use Twitter, I would be lying if I said I had not been tempted to draw a 5 on my right wrist. The #PassFir5t movement has grown so large that I will refrain from addressing it at length until we know its conclusion, but without question, the events of the past week related to Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist will be seared into the collective memory of Carolina basketball history.

It remains to be seen how large a place in that history it will eventually claim; that depends, of course, on whether he plays and whether we win. Needless to say, it has the potential to rightly make Marshall one of Carolina’s most memorable and beloved players ever. Part of the reason I wanted to draw that 5 reflects how great of a teammate and likeable of a guy Marshall is, and how genuinely he seems to draw support from the movement. It is one of those moments I wish I was experiencing as a student, or at least a North Carolina resident.

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The bracket

Staring at a printed bracket is a favorite pastime of mine, one that I will uphold stubbornly for the rest of my life, even though I, like most of the rest of America, host pools online now rather than score them myself. I enjoy the time it saves, and cannot rationally give that up, but to be truthful, I miss going through the brackets after each round and seeing each individual’s upset-predicting successes and failures.

A tale from my childhood illustrates the extent to which, at an early age, I acquired my love for a 64-team, single elimination tournament in the greatest sport in the world: I was once grounded during the second week of March, for actions unrelated to college basketball, and when I was grounded as a kid, it took the form of losing entertainment privileges (television and internet) for a period days. When she discovered that the period coincided with Selection Sunday and the week following, my mom realized that the punishment now far exceeded whatever my crime was. It wasn’t necessary to deprive me of my several days of preparation and then watching the opening rounds of the tournament, and the punishment was moved to a different time.

Anyway, below I have inserted my bracket, completed and finalized. For most of my life, I have been a so-called “one bracket kind of guy” who sticks with the same selections across all of his pools. Choosing to fill out more than one seems like an attempt to end up lucky, rather than trust your own bracket prowess. Fill out enough brackets, and one of them will emerge as a good one, but it takes skill to align what you truly believe will happen with what plays out over the three weeks of the tournament.

A few thoughts on the bracket, and on Carolina’s first weekend:

  • This is perhaps the least upset laden bracket I have ever filled out. I almost always pick a 12/5 upset, and I’m generally decent at hitting on it. I also enjoy taking at least one double-digit seed to the Sweet Sixteen, and I’ve had moderate success there, as well.  Neither occurs in my bracket this year, and most of it has to do with the matchups. The two twelve seeds with the best shot at advancing were Harvard and VCU, and both drew tough draws: Harvard catches Vanderbilt off their recent upset of Kentucky, and VCU catches fellow mid-major Wichita St., who also has much to prove and isn’t likely to be taken by surprise. It’s also a different year in college basketball than we have seen recently: the bubble was as soft as ever, yet the pool of good teams runs about 20 deep before there is a drop-0ff, deeper than it has been in the past few years. There is a larger than normal gap between the 1-5 seeds and the rest, and as a result I have only one true upset in my first round, which itself is only an upset according to seeds: N.C. State is better and more talented than overseeded San Diego State.

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Random early March thoughts on college basketball

I stated at the outset that I was leaving the x’s and o’s and comprehensive analysis to the ESPN folks; this blog really is merely a personal journal of sorts recording experiences that are among the most important to me. However, since it is now March, when we are deluged with material to discuss, analyze and pick apart, some of it quite stupid, I will no doubt indulge my outlet here to share a random collection of thoughts on the season and the national landscape at regular season’s end.

The all-conference teams and the Sporting News All-America teams came out this week, and I hesitate to write too much on this since several more All-America teams are soon to follow. But a few glaring thoughts. I was surprised by the ACC media leaving Kendall Marshall off of the first-team (even barely), but only because of how much the conversation had shifted in his direction over the past two weeks. The tide of media opinion tends to sway in a massive exercise of group-think weeks before the votes, and on that measure, many were calling for Marshall to be in the POY conversation. Ultimately, Tyler Zeller turned in too many increasingly impressive performances for that to be an issue, but all the same, voting for Marshall for All-ACC, and even first-team All-America, was trending.

In hindsight, though, his second team appearance should not be surprising. None of the players in ACC history with similarly historic assist totals made the first team except Bobby Hurley, and he only made it his senior season with a 17 points per game average. I think the media got it right – Henson’s double-double average and status as the conference’s premiere defender and Barnes’ status as our leading scorer made them impossible to leave off. What Marshall is accomplishing this year is unprecedented and truly remarkable, but a guy who averages 7 points per game cannot match the production of Henson and Barnes. Marshall’s classy response indicates he understands that’s the way it works.

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On this team’s underrated toughness and ACC road record

When the ACC is as bad as it is this season, it is understandable that no one is handing out much praise to Carolina for surviving the ACC season without what could be termed a bad loss. It wasn’t until we soundly defeated Duke to end the regular season that the national media (excluding Jay Bilas, who seemed to never leave our camp) finally jumped back on the UNC bandwagon as a legitimate national title contender. But there are a few observations to be made that validate the accomplishment.

After we trounced Duke to clinch the ACC regular season title, it was easy to focus on that as the deciding game. In reality, that is a game Carolina expected to win, and the regular season title was ultimately won back in January when Duke dropped two bad losses at home to Florida State and Miami. They made one of them up by beating FSU in Tallahassee, a great win that UNC could not get, but needed UNC to help out with a bad loss of its own. A season split of the Duke-UNC series should have led to a tie between the two, but Carolina made it through unscathed.

We weren’t without plenty of opportunities. Much was made in the media about the inequity of the conference schedules of Duke and Carolina, especially down the stretch, and when the title hunt was still a three-team race, most agreed that over the final month of the season, UNC faced a more difficult series of games, especially on the road, than either Duke or FSU. A simple comparison of which games Duke and UNC did not have to play this year illustrates the disparity. We missed out on second games with each of the anemic bottom three, BC, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech; Duke played all three twice, which means that three of their eight ACC road games were automatic (though they almost lost two of them). Duke, meanwhile, missed out on second games with Miami, State, and Virginia, and faced each of them at home in that one game. Again, they played FSU twice to our once, but our one game with them was on the road. We played a road game against every team that finished in the top half of the conference while Duke played at only FSU, and each of those road games came in one two week span to close the season.

This is an inevitable byproduct of a twelve team league about which the conference can do absolutely nothing. I point this out not to complain, but to tout the underrated achievement of our team. After we beat Wake Forest in an ugly but easy affair, I felt uncomfortable with the false security of our 6-1 ACC record. We had no road wins against legitimate opponents and that brutal non-Duke schedule still ahead with two games against UVA and three other tough road games; I silently predicted that we would drop at least one, since even the 2009 team had that unfortunate loss at Maryland.

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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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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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