Thad: The Hubert Factor

Alex Len is at the moment a surer bet than any North Carolina player to have an effective, decade-plus career as an NBA player, and a major question going into Saturday's game was whether Carolina would be able to contain the sophomore seven-footer.

Len had his moments, but not too many of them. At the end of the day, he was held to just ten points and five rebounds. Major credit for that limited production needs to go to Carolina's defense, stating with Desmond Hubert.

Hubert was a key factor in the game's opening five and a half minutes, as Carolina got off to the quick 14-4 start. Hubert won the opening tip from Len, then alertly blocked Shaquille Cleare's layup attempt as the Terps tried to quickly answer Reggie Bullock's opening three. Hubert then was credited with two steals in the next 60 seconds, both of which led to baskets by Bullock in transition (and an 8-0 lead). The next time down court, Hubert held his ground on the baseline, defending Len long enough for an alert Marcus Paige to swoop in for yet another steal.

Hubert's fine start didn't end there. He continued to make it difficult for Len to get the ball (Maryland turned it over five times in all before Len's first field goal attempt), had an offensive rebound, and found James Michael McAdoo with a good pass in space to drive that led to a trip to the foul line for McAdoo. Finally, his defense held James Padgett up long enough to allow McAdoo to arrive for a big block to spring Dexter Strickland for a fastbreak layup-and-one.

To be sure, Hubert also had his only shot blocked in that stretch, and Len finally did score against him on an impressive move. The point is, Hubert made Len work hard to score, and also showed that he is not content to be simply invisible on the offensive end.

Hubert's inspired early play was a critical factor in Carolina's fast start, and set in motion a virtuous circle of events from a Tar Heel perspective that allowed the lead to snowball up to 22 points by halftime. Numbers crunched by Inside Carolina stats guru Adrian Atkinson help quantify Hubert's overall contribution: Carolina allowed just 14 points in the 14-plus minutes (26 Terrapin possessions) Hubert was on the court, and the Tar Heels allowed nearly 60 percent more points per possession when Hubert was not in the game.

That's the performance of a young man staking out a clear identity as a basketball player and a clear role on this team and in this program. Carolina has a long tradition of tall, awkward or gangly looking forward/centers who, despite initial impressions, turned out to be pretty valuable contributors.

Three comparative cases that come to mind are Warren Martin (1981-86), Kevin Salvadori (1990-1994) and Serge Zwikker (1993-1997). All of those players were bit-part contributors in their first year of eligibility--indeed Salvadori and Zwikker were redshirts their first year on campus, before spending their freshman season of eligibility as little more than mop-up men. But by the end of their sophomore years, all three of those players had begun to make significant contributions on the court. Martin converted 60 percent of his shots from the field as a sophomore in 12 minutes a game; Salvadori shot 55 percent from the field while seeing his minutes rise from three minutes to 15 minutes a game; Zwikker had his coming-out party as an offensive force to be reckoned with by scoring 19 points in 20 minutes in the 1995 NCAA first round win over Murray State, helping spell an ailing Rasheed Wallace who played limited minutes.

Desmond Hubert is not nearly as skilled an offensive player as any of those former Tar Heels, and is not likely to become so either. But he doesn't have to be in order to be an important player for this Carolina team right now.

Hubert's defensive qualities not only give Carolina a fighting chance to neutralize major inside talents like Len, they also allow the Tar Heels to apply more pressure in halfcourt defense. Hubert's opening block not only set the tone for the game, it sent a message that Carolina could erase defensive mistakes. The Tar Heels in fact went on to notch a remarkable nine first-half steals, and force 15 first-half turnovers over all.

There are always those who will point at players getting significant minutes on a team that is struggling and say "so-and-so is not an ACC center" and the like. There is something comic about the expression, because the fact is if you are playing for North Carolina (or any one of 11 other schools) and getting time, you are an ACC player, period. But usually the phrase is not meant to be taken literally, but to be understood as claiming that said player is not of the same caliber as most players in the conference (or in the school's history) at that position.

It's fairly clear that Hubert is not one of the most talented big guys Carolina has ever had, and it's very unlikely he would be one of the top six big guys taken if there was an open draft of all players now on ACC rosters. True, but irrelevant.

What's relevant is that Carolina in recent games has been markedly more effective defensively when Hubert is on the court, and that this Carolina team needs defense-fueled fast break opportunities to establish confidence and put up good offensive numbers. Even if Hubert doesn't score a hoop—and he is looking more confident and aggressive around the basket—the offense and team as a whole functions better when Hubert is making plays like he did in the opening minutes Saturday.

Of course the question facing Hubert—and all the Tar Heels—is whether, having shown what they are capable of at their best, they can replicate it. For this cast of Carolina players to make real headway, multiple players need to display and sustain significant breakthroughs in their level of play.

Against FSU, P.J. Hairston was that guy, and though he didn't shoot well versus Maryland he still brought strong energy and made some great hustle plays. Against, Maryland, Desmond Hubert delivered a performance the Terrapins probably weren't counting on. If Hubert becomes a player Roy Williams can count on for consistent contributions within his skill set, he could yet play a key role in this team's sustained improvement—on both ends of the court.

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 from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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