Thad: Competitive Lesson

Let's get one thing clear: North Carolina competed all three days of the ACC Tournament.

Indeed, competing may have been the best thing the Tar Heels did all weekend. It took a lot of resolve for Carolina to rally from down 19 points against Miami to pull out an unlikely win, and to catch up to Clemson after being down 7 points with just over two minutes to go in that one. Carolina displayed what Kendall Marshall called the "will to win" in admirable quantities in Greensboro, and that will, plus Harrison Barnes, carried the team to the Final. To say or imply Carolina didn't show up for this tournament is to disrespect the quality of the opponents Carolina played and to overlook the heroics of the Tar Heels themselves.

This is not to say Carolina played particularly well. But you can play hard and lose, and even play hard and lose by double-digits. Maryland played their hearts out against Duke Friday night and still lost by a big margin. The Tar Heels on Sunday made a go of getting back into it late, and if Barnes's shot to cut the lead to 7 had dropped, things might have gotten very interesting.

This is also not to deny that Carolina got out-competed on Sunday. You can compete pretty hard, and yet still get out-competed by an opponent. I think that John Henson and others were right to say that Duke wanted it more. Call Sunday's game a competitive lesson for the Tar Heels: they got to witness firsthand what a superior competitive effort by a veteran team for 40 minutes looks like.

It would be easy to come up with some excuses for why Duke had more fire than Carolina on Sunday. I think the Tar Heels caught a tough break when Virginia blew their first round game, because Miami was much better equipped physically to give Carolina a hard time and because you knew the Hurricanes would still be on a high at the start of Friday's game. The Miami game undoubtedly took a lot out of the Tar Heels, as did the epic Clemson win on Saturday.

Likewise, I think Duke caught a break when Virginia Tech beat Florida State, because it seemed unlikely the Hokies would have much emotional energy left to take on Duke and that the Blue Devils would have a clear psychological edge. Duke got to the final game having played well but without having to deal with the stress of a close tournament game down the stretch, and hence had reason to feel both very confident and quite fresh heading into the Final.

But you can't make excuses at tournament time. And there were solid basketball reasons why Duke was so dominant most of Sunday's game. Nolan Smith got in the way of, and it seemed in the head of, Kendall Marshall from the opening moments. His aggressive defense effectively cut Carolina's offense off at its head, and as a result the other Tar Heel players began rushing and forcing shots when they did get it.

Later on, when Carolina did find more of an offensive flow, the Blue Devils had the outside shooting to finish off the Tar Heels that Miami and Clemson did not have. They also neutralized Carolina's strengths, making Barnes work very hard for his points and contesting Henson's and Zeller's shots inside.

So give Duke a lot of credit for a thoroughly deserved tournament title. But what can Carolina take from the experience?

On the cautionary side, the weekend clearly served as a good reminder of this team's fragility. The comeback manner of the Miami and Clemson games was in a sense remarkable, but the fact that those games were close should not have been surprising. Carolina got to 14-2 in the league by winning every close game that came its way, not by regularly blowing people out.

On the positive side is the obvious fact that Carolina pulled two games out of very difficult circumstances on consecutive days, which is a great ability to have. Carolina has Harrison Barnes, who has been incomparable in clutch situations this year.

Going forward another positive is that the Tar Heels will likely benefit a great deal from seeing some fresh teams that have not had time and experience to study how to handle Marshall, Henson and others.

Marshall said in the locker Saturday that ever since the 16-assist game against Florida State in Chapel Hill, he felt teams had been making it harder and harder for him by more thorough preparation and scouting. An obvious example is the job Clemson did Saturday in taking away Marshall's patented look-ahead quick break pass, the pass that so often has led to demoralizing quick baskets during the year. The Tigers did such a good job getting back and keeping up with Tyler Zeller in particular that by the latter part of the game Marshall stopped trying to make that pass. Another example was the smothering defense played by Nolan Smith on Sunday.

As we said last week, Carolina has some slightly unconventional parts, and can create matchup problems (especially with Henson) for most opponents. Carolina also has some vulnerabilities and some tendencies that a really well-prepared opponent might exploit, if they have the players to pull it off. But I expect this team to do fairly well against teams seeing Carolina in person for the first time. In particular, whether the shots are falling or not, Zeller and Henson's ability to score on follow shots, the cure for a lot of Carolina's so-so offensive spells this year, are going to be too much for a lot of teams.

Of course, things will go even better for the Tar Heels if the shots fall too. Carolina put together two of its best outside shooting games of the year against Miami and Clemson, including Barnes's 6-8 shooting on treys Saturday. The good news is Carolina is indeed capable of shooting that well from deep from time to time. The bad news is that the longer track record suggests Carolina can't rely on that formula to win every night.

Perhaps the biggest single thing to emerge from Greensboro is the fact that this team is still a work in progress. These players desperately want to win, and they expect to win. But no one can be completely certain about just how this team is going to handle the NCAA Tournament and the pressure of a tough second round game against Washington or Georgia.

Still, I like this team's chances of advancing to the Sweet 16 very much. Despite all the rough patches this weekend, this is a still a really good basketball team with some unique talents that new opponents may have a hard time coping with. And this is a team that will not give up if it goes behind early, or even if it's still behind late.

And last but not least, Carolina is not playing Duke or any of the other No. 1 seeds this week. The next time the Tar Heels play a team of that caliber, if it's this year, they will need to raise their game beyond what was witnessed on Sunday. But that's not the task at hand.

Indeed, worrying about the other top seeds in the tough East region should be the farthest thing from anyone's mind. Getting past Long Island and then past what is a likely to be a tough second round game against a quality opponent is work enough for one week.


Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.


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