Posts Tagged ‘ Tyler Zeller ’

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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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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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 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 front court

Harrison Barnes: There is little to say that wouldn’t merely repackage what I already wrote last spring, what ESPN wrote last week, and what is commonly understood around the country. Barnes is the best player in the country on a team full of best players in the country, and as the first player of his caliber to return for his sophomore season since the NBA’s one-and-done rule, he might be the best player in college basketball in several years. He is an usually mature individual who made a very strange decision to return, seemingly because he wanted to win so badly, and he reportedly has an insane work ethic. Add to that his late-game play last season, which literally made the different between winning and losing in at least five ACC games. For all of these reasons, there is no question that were he to stay beyond this season (highly unlikely), he could approach Ford-Jordan-Hansbrough status in Carolina basketball lore. Two years, even with a national title, likely isn’t enough to achieve that level of reverence, but he is at least on his way to joining the next tier in a program full of college basketball luminaries.

Tyler Zeller: Thinking back to the summer of 2008 and watching the recruitment hype of Tyler Zeller as he prepared to arrive in Chapel Hill, it is obvious to conclude that we didn’t quite get what we expected. He isn’t as effective facing the basket, was a little soft on defense early in his career, and wasn’t able to contribute as a sophomore nearly as much as expected. But he arrived late last year as one of the premier post players in the country and enters this season as an All-America candidate, finally realizing his heralded recruiting status. He may actually be one of the more underrated players in the college basketball landscape, simply because there is nothing flashy about his game (except his ability as a seven-footer to run the floor) and because he quietly raised his game to Preseason Naismith Top 50 status after having been somewhat forgotten as a freshman and sophomore. College basketball fans respect his game, but they should remember that he was a top-ten recruit four years ago, and that he was finally playing like it in the NCAA tournament last season.

John Henson: I always liked about Danny Green that he couldn’t keep himself from smiling on the basketball court, especially after triggering a run with a three-pointer or making a key defensive block. For many players smiling just isn’t their style, but as a former player and on-court smiler myself, its fulfilling to see someone experiencing such joy at meaningful success in intense competition. Henson is on a level of his own in this category, and coupled with his relatively frequent poor shot selection and the colossal mistake he nearly made at the end of the Washington game last March, he presents a conflicting persona of extremely likable but excessively goofy. I have a hunch that we will see more of the likable side this year, as Henson is a year older and increasingly comfortable with his role as a shot-blocker and rebounder. He says that he wants to expand his offense (and after seeing him drain a couple of outside shots during Cobb court pickup games, he definitely has it), but he understands that in most games this year he won’t have to. He is a more mature basketball player than he gets credit for, and with his personality and ability to make plays no one else can (ending the Washington game by deflecting the in-bound pass), he is one of the more fun to watch players Carolina has had.

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