Posts Tagged ‘ Preseason #1 ’

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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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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ESPN’s new program-specific blog: the choice of UNC over the other powerhouse programs

As I mentioned in the Halloween post, ESPN.com has created a new college basketball blog focused solely on UNC, hiring Robbi Pickeral away from the Raleigh News & Observer to write about the Heels for a national audience. As I have no knowledge whatsoever of ESPN’s internal decision-making process here, what I write in this post is purely speculative. But their choice of Carolina as the first program for which to focus a school-specific blog seems to speak volumes about our status as the premier college basketball program in America.

No matter the circumstances that led to the hiring of Pickeral, ultimately the decision cannot help but represent a choice of UNC over the other schools on the short list options. As a write this post, though, I noticed that ESPN has created two program-specific blogs for college football: Notre Dame and Stanford. The Notre Dame selection was no doubt due to their status as a football independent without a conference-specific blog to cover them. Stanford’s is more odd, and discredits my attempt to find meaning in UNC’s selection. I’ll write it off as an anomaly; ESPN could have chosen a major SEC school and did not, so there must be some extenuating circumstances I don’t know about. The choice of UNC, however, is not hard to figure.

Probably the most significant factor in choosing Carolina for this blog was the timing of 2011. Beyond fitting the criteria for consideration, we are the unanimous preseason #1 team preparing for what may be one of our greatest seasons in team history, and we are perhaps at the pinnacle even of our own storied history, looking for our third national title in eight seasons. Had it been another year, the choice could have been Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or UCLA.

Then again, it at least could have been Kentucky or Duke this season, but it wasn’t. Moreover, a huge part of our current place in college basketball is directly tied to our accomplishments not only in 2005 and 2009, but in the stretch running from 2005 to now. Even prior to Roy’s arrival, we were arguably the program with the highest level of consistent success since 1950, with arguably the largest, most loyal and deep-rooted fan base. Only Kentucky could rival us on the first claim; just Duke could on the second, and only then provided you omit the ‘deep-rooted’ criterion from the question. Kentucky likely wasn’t chosen because their fan base isn’t large enough; Duke didn’t get the nod because their program has vastly underperformed in both hype and post-season success over the period coinciding with UNC’s peak, excepting their 2010 title. Duke should enviously accept their inferior stature represented, in part, by this blog.

In the last couple of years, ESPN created separate websites to house content focused on five major U.S. cities with deep and diverse sports histories: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. While the UNC blog is a much smaller venture, it makes similar acknowledgements about a particular sports fan base: the brand has enough national appeal to warrant a spot on a national website, and there are enough people in a given region of the country to comprise regular, sustainable traffic to the site.

One cannot help but notice that the Southeast is the only region of the country not represented in those five major U.S. cities; neither Atlanta or the Charlotte-Raleigh combination provides enough of a cross-sport fan base to support one. But college basketball alone does control the region’s attention just as, for example, the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins all do in Boston. By itself, it couldn’t sustain a website, but it can sustain a blog. Our region should treat its creation as a badge of honor that college basketball in our state is one of the closest sports institutions in America to equaling the prominence of professional sports in our biggest, most rooted sports towns.

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.

And the coronation begins…

Carolina fans had their morning brightened just as the workday was getting started with the announcement that Harrison Barnes is returning for another year. After a quiet week, the college basketball media awoke to fill the internet with adjusted thoughts on next year, since the landscape of the season is now officially altered with Carolina as the entrenched, consensus #1 team. A few quick thoughts from my lunch break:

  • We will probably never know the true nature of Barnes’ decision, but despite multiple reports as early as two weeks ago that he had decided to return, there certainly appeared to be a significant level of indecision. His choice was layed out before him as clearly as it possibly could be, making his indecision a little odd compared to the lengthy evaluation processes necessary for Zeller and Henson, and even Lawson, Ellington, and Green three years ago. But perhaps the clarity of his decison was what made it so difficult since his two options were both pulling at him so forcefully from opposite ends of the spectrum; on the one hand, he has already maximized his draft stock as a top-three pick and NBA-ready player, but on the other he possesses an uncharacteristic, Hansbrough-esque love for the college game and desire to win a national championship.
  • We were going to be ranked in the top two nationally preseason alongside Kentucky even if Barnes left, with only the order to be determined. The order is now likely set, but little else changes about that situation. Except that we are returning the country’s best player, our leading scorer and resident master of the final three minutes of a basketball game. Edge: North Carolina.
  • I am admittedly somewhat of a Twitter rookie, but I got pretty excited by the response of our players to Barnes’ decision. The collective confidence, and even cockiness, of this team demonstrates their intense desire to win big next year, and it ought to ease any concerns about the cohesiveness of a team¬†filled with future NBA players. More than is usual, these guys are here for one shared purpose, and that is to win a national title.
  • ESPN blogger Eamonn Brennan wrote an interesting blog post this morning on the significance of Barnes’ decision, which makes official that three of the top five NBA prospects are returning to college in an unprecedented postponement of NBA riches. We have mostly the looming lockout to thank, but it is without question an opportunity for college basketball to dig in and hold its own against the NBA’s attack on the caliber of its best teams. 2012 will have more teams with legitimate claims to powerhouse status than any season since 2008, with Ohio State joining UNC and Kentucky. The past two seasons arguably had none, and in 2009 UNC left everyone else behind in its march to greatness. As Brennan writes, if the NBA is sidelined while this college season plays out, it will be a tremendous statement that the college game isn’t going anywhere.

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.

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.