There have been recent seasons when it's felt that way in Chapel Hill. Carolina fans wanted to see the players on the 2004-05 team complete the ultimate turnaround by winning a title so badly it hurt. And in 2008-09, the entire point of the season was to get back to the Final Four and redeem the previous year's disastrous ending—and also make sure that the most beloved Tar Heel player in a generation left with a championship. There was enormous pressure on that team all season, but it was clear all along that only March and April really counted.
I have a different feeling about this year's team. Yes, winning the national title is the goal, and yes it is certainly achievable. But it's wrong to think that these games in November, December, and so forth "don't really matter."
In one sense it's a truism that every game counts—after all, the players are playing them, and people are watching them intently.
But there's an extra reason to watch this Carolina team closely. I think this team has the opportunity not only to win a title, but to leave a lasting mark on college basketball as the smartest team in college basketball this year and one of the smartest in recent memory.
All the ingredients are there. Kendall Marshall is a wizard passing the basketball and controlling the flow of the game. As I've written before, Harrison Barnes analyzes the game from the wing position in a way reminiscent of Bill Bradley, and his mastery of the college game continues to grow. Tyler Zeller, a recipient of the ACC Scholar Athlete award, also takes what Roy Williams has termed a "cerebral" approach to the game. Behind the upbeat goofy persona that is John Henson is a shot-blocking genius. And rounding out the mix is Dexter Strickland, who has made huge leaps and bounds in his decision making and has become a model of defensive intensity and concentration.
The starting five—who have the additional benefit of playing together for a second season, a rare thing in modern college basketball—have the potential to be a team true connoisseurs of basketball as a beautiful game will appreciate. Indeed, with that pro league on the sidelines, the Tar Heels could be literally the best hardwood show in the country this winter. My aspiration for this team is for not just Carolina fans but fans of basketball to watch this team play, over and over, for the same reason hard-core fans of soccer can't resist watching the current Barcelona team play: not because of the significance for the standings or rankings of any particular game, but just because it's Carolina playing, and they are beautiful to watch.
What will set—and what will need to set—these Heels apart are both individual and collective intelligence. This is not going to be the most physical team in college basketball—Michigan State already proved that point. It's not going to be the best shooting team. It has a legitimate chance to be one of the elite defensive clubs, but that's not likely to be the team's defining identity or the reason the team is remembered.
Rather, it's the ability to play fast and smart on offense, to be both high-tempo and disciplined about shot selection, to push the ball forward without being wasteful, and to take full advantage of a unique collection of individual skills that is—and is going to need to be—this team's calling card.
An early indication that this is possible came late in the first half and early in the second half of Sunday's game against UNC Asheville. With under 4 minutes remaining in the first half, the score was still close, and Tyler Zeller had not been much of a factor. That changed with a couple of late baskets in the first half set up by Marshall. In the second half, Zeller continued to get the ball and soon was in full-bore domination mode. When you have a seven-footer with Zeller's skills against a somewhat undersized opponent, smart basketball says you go to that well as often as you can. When the Heels figured that out, the game went from close to fairly comfortable.
None of this is to say the Heels are there yet. It's November. The key reserves—James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock—all look very promising, but it remains to be seen how they will blend in. There will be mistakes, there will be unwise shots, errant passes, missed block outs. The question of over-reliance on Marshall remains a legitimate question as well. And, as ever, an injury or two could radically alter the prognosis.
But for the moment, the prognosis is excellent. It's a good thing that Carolina got challenged in a serious way by Michigan State in the first half Friday, and that they had to play well for forty minutes against UNC-Asheville. The more good, well-coached teams Carolina plays early on this year, the better, and if they play hard and shoot well against Carolina too, so much the better.
As to individuals, including the newcomers—it's too early to comment, with one exception: John Henson looks like he has taken his complete game up a full level, on both ends of the court. His tenacity defensively against Michigan State helped counter the Spartans' strength inside, while against Asheville he unveiled a truly impressive collection of offensive moves and a nice touch. Time will tell if Henson can achieve consistency on his mid-range jump shot, turnaround baseline shot, and overall touch. If he can, that will go a long way towards making the Tar Heels as fluid and fun to watch in the half court as they are in transition.
Basketball is not a mistake-free sport—perfection is not in the sport's vocabulary. But once in a while, beauty, especially the beauty of collective intelligence married to high-level skill, comes over the basketball horizon. It's on the horizon this season in a light blue tint. While the tag of trying to be the smartest team in America is a tough one to live up to, it's the right standard for assessing—and more importantly, appreciating—the just-launched journey of this year's Tar Heels.
Thad 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.