Posts Tagged ‘ Roy Williams ’

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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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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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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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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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 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.