Posts Tagged ‘ Reggie Bullock ’

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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Mid-season thoughts

Carolina hits the halfway point of the regular season during tomorrow’s conference opener against Boston College, and I figured it is a fitting time to look at the contrasting assumptions preseason and mid-season that underlie our outlook for the remainder of the year. Luke Winn at CNNSI wrote a similar post a few days ago focused on the national landscape, and one of his preseason assumptions that he now significantly alters was that Carolina was a tier above the rest of the teams in college basketball.

That this has changed is unquestionably true, and its true on a deeper level than is reflected simply by having fallen to #3 in the AP poll. Virtually no one actually thinks Syracuse is the best team in the country, much less the favorite to win the national title; but most of the country now follows Kentucky as the expected favorite and nearly unanimously declared most talented team. Carolina even made a list of “biggest disappointments” of the season’s first two months; their crime was falling from lofty expectations into a four-team top tier including the three teams above and Ohio State.

Those lofty expectations were certainly reflected in the tone of this blog preseason, when much of what I wrote lauded the preeminent status of our program above others as we embarked on yet another season in which Carolina was the team facing national title or major bust circumstances. I did caution that while this year’s team shared that burden in common with the 2009 team, it was not nearly as good or experienced, and that has unfortunately proven too true.

It’s worth considering what exactly has not materialized for Carolina thus far, because it truly is a case of the Heels not meeting expectations; the country expected Syracuse, Ohio State, and especially Kentucky to form the core of a strong national field, and we came down to their level rather than those teams rising to ours. The other, individual assumptions that haven’t yet been confirmed provide the answers to our relative “struggle” and offer hope for significant hope for major improvement, which many seem to think is a possibility reserved only for youthful Kentucky.

Harrison Barnes will be a man among boys as the best player in the nation. If the season ended today, Barnes would not find his name anywhere near the list of  POY candidates, leaving this assumption unfulfilled. He is our leading scorer at 17 ppg and is making nearly half of his attempts behind the arc, but he isn’t carrying our offense and our team in the manner expected of a player who is supposed to be too good for college ball. Part of this is the balanced scoring provided by the boosts in output from John Henson and our reserve guard position. Another reason may be that he just hasn’t yet had enough opportunities, and it may only take the onset of the ACC season to correct that. Barnes was a late bloomer last year, and he could make a similar mid-season surge given the chance to do what he does best, which is make game-changing plays in close contests.

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On the two losses and Saturday morning college basketball

Thanksgiving break and then a week-long work trip to Arizona caused an extended hiatus from the blog, one that unfortunately coincided with a nationally relevant up-and-down stretch for the Heels. It was never my goal to provide timely breakdowns of game-by-game happenings (that should be left to the ESPN folks), so the break can partly be attributed to a lack of urgency on my part. There wasn’t a whole lot new to say, especially after the Kentucky loss. But as my goal is to chronicle my experience of Carolina basketball, there were some observations that I would have liked to publish a while ago, and will just now get to. Here goes:

UNLV 90, UNC 80

Those rare completely unforeseen losses such as the one we took to UNLV frustrate Carolina fans in a way that exemplifies how spoiled we are as fans. Psychologically preparing for most games with the comfortable assurance of victory is a luxury not afforded to most programs, yet when one of those allegedly assured victories ends up as a loss, the disappointment for us is even more profound. I was certainly guilty of this: I entered the weekend looking forward to the upcoming games as holiday family entertainment, obviously leading to a feeling of being cheated during the disaster against UNLV.

Rather than understanding that early season road losses to good but not elite teams remain a part of college basketball even in this new era, our immediate impulse is to search for explanations. In my case, it was to identify chronic problems with the team indicating that we cannot possibly be as good as our expectations; for those less negative than me it was to find comparisons between Saturday’s loss and the surprising setbacks experienced by the 2005 and 2009 teams.

Yet after the frustration settles, reality is somewhere in between. The loss differs from the one to Santa Clara in 2005 in that there wasn’t a significant starter on the bench suspended, and it differs from the one in 2009 to BC in that it didn’t come at the hands of a team with NBA talent playing at their best on offense. Not to mention the fact that the 2009 team made that loss a close game, while against UNLV we lied down and took punches right until the end.

Yet that does not mean there is a chronic problem that diminishes the ultra-high expectations for this team, nor even that should indicate that we are not the best team in the country. This team is nowhere near the level of 2009’s, but since that 2009 team is one of the best in the history of the sport, it doesn’t have to be. Much of this loss can be blamed on the differences in style between 2012 and 2009 rather than differences in quality. Though our most recent win against Evansville suggests potential for otherwise, this version of Carolina is not one to blow teams out of the gym with its scoring. We hang on to victories with our defense rather than dare teams to outscore us, and when the defense lapses, we aren’t often going to score our way out of trouble. Late last season, however, the defense – and clutch late game play – was there more often than not, and we remained a tough team to beat.

The point here is that this team is far more susceptible to losses like this than 2009 Carolina ever was, and even 2009 Carolina lost three regular season games. We’ve come back down to earth a little bit, but are nonetheless one of the best teams in the country. The main lesson may end up being that there is more than one route to a national championship. 2005 and 2009 took the team of destiny, no one is going to beat us when it counts route; 2012 doesn’t have that option – we lack the offensive firepower to control our own destiny, and a hot shooting Kentucky team will beat us in March.

But maybe Kentucky will be cold. Carolina hasn’t yet experienced this under Roy, but as Florida learned in 2006 and Duke in 2010, one doesn’t have to be the team of destiny to a win a national title.

Kentucky 73, UNC 72

This was one of the stranger Carolina viewing experiences of my life, and especially after the nature of the game, it will certainly be one of the more lasting. After finishing up a long and fast-paced week in Arizona for ALEC’s large winter meeting, I went out with coworkers to celebrate Friday night, returned to my hotel room and went to bed a little after 2:00, woke up around 9:00, packed my stuff, and sat down to watch the game in my hotel room at 10:00 in the morning. A brief walk through the lobby discovered that all of the televisions there were showing college football. I couldn’t believe that people in the western half of the U.S. do this every weekend.

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On the Carrier Classic, UNCA, and the 2-0 start

As many have already written, the Carrier Classic never actually stopped feeling like an exhibition game with the surrounding spectacle as the main event. Fortunately for Carolina we came out with the win, since a loss would have certainly brought home the realization that it was, in fact, a real season opener, and launched a bevy of frustrated accusations that the conditions prevented a legitimate contest. All parties involved should be glad that the team that was supposed to win won.

It is true that the spectacle, the slippery floor, the strange sight lines,  and perhaps the wind and the temperature, too, prevented either team from ever getting into the flow of the game. The Heels pulled away because we were finally able to get into our transition for a few isolated stretches, but for most of the game, we looked out of sync, evidenced by Kendall Marshall’s stat line of five assists and five turnovers.

But as SI’s Seth Davis wrote after the game, the collective experience of the event is one that should be continued, even if the basketball component of it unsurprisingly did not measure up. As a fan watching on television you still had clear views of the water and skyline in many of the angles on the game, so at no point did you forget that you were watching a game played outdoors. The most enjoyable aspect to me remains that the entire nation fixated on a particular regular season college basketball game for a day, and that the game involved North Carolina. To have the President introduce the game, and even to have celebrities in the audience and participating in halftime events, are generally thrills reserved for the high levels of professional sports, but Friday night it was college basketball, and specifically UNC.

UNC 67, Michigan State 55

There are many things one can attribute to the strange conditions, but the enormous rebounding advantage we surrendered to Michigan State, especially on their offensive boards, wouldn’t seem to be one of them. Tom Izzo-coached teams are typically among the nation’s best at rebounding, but so are we given last year’s performance by Henson and the significant height advantage we have over almost every team we will face. Hopefully we can write this off as an anomaly moving forward into the season.

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Thoughts on the back court

Kendall Marshall: Even after Marshall made his very loud splash onto the college basketball scene last season, there remained national sports journalists who were unwilling to label him great, at least not great in the same way that his immediate predecessors Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson were great. One went so far as to relegate him to merely “solid.”

There were sound reasons for this suggested contrast – Marshall certainly is not as quick up the floor or to the basket as either. But it was clear at season’s end that the difference is in style and not in degree of greatness. As I wrote here last spring, on a per-minute basis Marshall’s freshmen season set him on course to be one of the elite passers in NCAA history.  To long-tenured fans of Carolina basketball, it is plainly apparent that he looks for his teammates and creates scoring opportunities in ways not seen since Ed Cota, and as indicated above, that isn’t for lack of great point guards.

Because of his impact on the effectiveness of his teammates, he is arguably the most important player on the roster. The marginal gap between Marshall and his replacement (sliding Strickland to point guard) is a gulf larger even than the one between Barnes’ and a Reggie Bullock/P.J. Hairston platoon; an  injury would be catastrophic. Judging by his occasional outlet of emotion yet distinct level-headed demeanor, Marshall is a solid kid who passionately loves Carolina basketball (he committed to UNC in September of his sophomore year of high school).  Perhaps other than Barnes, there is no player I want more to watch win a national title.

Dexter Strickland: Strickland is in an awkward spot – he is the only starter not listed on the Naismith Preseason Top 50, and he has a fairly loose grip on his starter’s minutes (at least at shooting guard) with Bullock and Hairston looking to steal considerable time, particularly on days when either is shooting well. Strickland has struggled to endear himself to fans with occasional poor shot selection and turnovers, but I think this year that changes in a major way. The maturity with which he has not only accepted but embraced his role as defensive stopper is remarkable, and at several points this season, he is going to finish on the break or make a steal at a key moment and remind us why he is a crucial part of this team. There are a handful of Danny Green moments that defined his identity as a role player; Strickland will collect his and cement his legacy.

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