Posts Tagged ‘ National Championships ’

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 NC Sports Hall of Fame’s 5 Greatest Moments in History

I am a bit late on the scene with this one, but I had been meaning to post for a while on the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s five finalists for the greatest sports moment in the history of our state. Recently, the Hall announced that Carolina’s 1957 national title victory over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas won the voting as the #1 Greatest Moment.

There is little to dispute here – as the most recognizable and widely followed sports institution in the state, this honor, whether bestowed democratically or not, was going to belong to the Heels. The ’57 tournament title is arguably our most significant, and not only for being the first; it was an epic three overtime win over a great team and a great player, and it was the first time that basketball was televised across North Carolina. The following season a collection of regular season games were televised, and Carolina basketball was on its way to becoming one of our state’s most important cultural institutions.

The Hall got it right at the top, important since that moment will define the larger project, which organizers hope will draw more attention to the museum. But the Hall’s list of five finalists peaks early and gets worse. As Scott Fowler points out in his column on the project, the five finalists are without representation by professional sports or Duke.

Both of these omissions are reasonable, and I will even defend Duke’s. Christian Laettner’s game-winning turnaround to defeat Kentucky in 1992 is comfortably in the top five greatest moments in national college basketball history; but at the time the proportion of this state to which it was significant was far too small for it to be a defining moment in our history.

As for the omission of professional sports, I am far from indignant – like most North Carolinians I am first and foremost a college basketball fan, and it is one of the great characteristics of our state that we have had multiple professional sports teams for over a decade yet can put together a top five list excluding them. As I will note shortly, this is not because our pro teams have been terrible. It is because we are one of a small handful of states with access to pro sports teams that have consistently preferred the college brand as a whole.

However… though it may be possible to construct reasonably a list of our five greatest moments with no mention of professional sports, ultimately the results of the list make this difficult to defend. Attribute the flaws of the list to improperly defined terms: when most of us think of “great moments” we are imagining moments that were culturally significant to North Carolina in a lasting manner, memories that will be passed on to later generations of sports fans. If we assume these terms – which the museum folks clearly did not – we can toss immediately from the list Jim Beatty’s mile run and the formation of the ACC. The first is a tremendous accomplishment, but that’s not the measure. The second is the product of someone severely overthinking this project; yes, that is significant, but absolutely no one remembers it because no one was watching and no one was there.

If I was reconstructing the list, I would mostly leave the remaining moments in tact: they chose the right moments from our storied college basketball history, my only suggestion (credit to Fowler on this one) being to sub in State’s 1974 upset of the UCLA dynasty in the tournament for their win over Maryland a couple of weeks earlier. I might also add Carolina’s 1982 title as greatest moment #6, unable to separate it from the other three college basketball moments since this was Dean’s long overdue first title.

That leaves two remaining spots, and the choices are so obvious – both coming in the past decade – that perhaps the museum folks just didn’t mark post-2000 history high enough. One is the 2006 Stanley Cup Championship by the Carolina Hurricanes. It remains the only professional sports title in North Carolina history (a mark not to be broken any time soon), and it mesmerized, for a brief period of time, a state full of people who know nothing about the sport. Native hockey haters can sneer, but my memory reports truthfully: 30 of my friends huddled around a television to watch a Hurricanes playoff game at my high school graduation party, and the Weynand family (at my coaxing) watched the clinching victory together from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. It was significant.

The other is assuredly less controversial: pick a moment from the amazing 2003 season of the Cardiac Cat Carolina Panthers. It could be one of the four regular season overtime victories, especially the October one over the Colts that took us to 5-0 and alerted the city, and the country, of the special season in progress. If you are looking for moments, it would have to be watching Steve Smith streak across the middle of the field and take a simple slant route 60 yards to end abruptly the NFC Divisional game against the Rams with a touchdown. The moment chosen by the Hall as one of the 22 greatest moments, but not advanced to the final five, was the victory over Philadelphia to win the NFC title and clinch a trip to the Super Bowl (this was technically my first time rushing a street in celebration, and the only time it was not Franklin Street, but Symphony Woods Drive in my neighborhood in Charlotte).

Those last three playoff games nearly shut down Charlotte in total focused attention – I was playing a rec basketball game during the first half of the Rams game and receiving updates from a teammate’s dad sitting on the front row. During that few week span, the Panthers pervaded conversation in the same way the Heels do during March Madness, and it also cemented the Panthers as the state’s first and only perenially relevant professional sports team. It was surreal month – a team from North Carolina playing in what is by far the nation’s biggest sporting event? That’s a top five moment.

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.

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.