Thad: Interpretations

This past Friday night, I attended the Virginia state championship boys' basketball game (top division) between Henrico and John Marshall, two Richmond-area high schools located a mile apart on either side of the city limits.

This was the third meeting between the two schools, with Henrico taking both previous encounters. But it's hard to beat the same team three times, and in pregame warm-ups, John Marshall's players looked excited and pumped, as was the crowd.

Then the game started. Henrico surprised JM with a triangle-and-two defense that denied the ball to JM's two most dangerous players. The Justices clearly looked confused and out-of-sorts on offense, and started taking bad shots and forcing drives to the baskets resulting in charges. JM didn't make a field goal for the first six minutes of the game as Henrico built an early comfortable lead.

The pattern continued in the 2nd quarter and by halftime the game was good as over, having hardly ever been competitive. As if to underscore that this was Henrico's night, the Warriors hit an off-balance shot from 35 feet to end the third quarter. The final score was 72-48, Henrico.

Little could I have imagined that I would witness a similar scenario the following night in Chapel Hill. Hard-core Carolina football fans might remember the 1997 game against Duke in which the Tar Heels fell behind 14-0 early but responded to crush the Blue Devils on Senior Day in Kenan Stadium.

14-0 has quite a different meaning in basketball, though, and Duke basketball has rarely been confused with Duke football. By the time Seth Curry hit his seat-of-the-pants fadeaway midway through the first half, most Carolina fans knew there wasn't going to be a storming comeback on Saturday night.

It was the first Tar Heel loss on Senior Day to Duke since 2001, when Carolina failed to clinch the outright regular season title in falling to Shane Battier et al. That Duke team went on to win the national championship.

This game felt a lot more like 1999, when Carolina was beaten soundly in the regular season finale by a clearly superior Duke team. Perhaps the best-ever Blue Devil outfit, that team was upset by Connecticut in the national title game.

This is not the time or place to wax eloquently on how good the current Duke team is now that they have returned to full strength. Suffice it to say they have three high-quality seniors, the ability to both stretch defenses and drive at them, a unique player in Curry with a highly evolved mid-range game, and a legit quality point guard in Quinn Cook. They have yet to lose with Ryan Kelly this season, and at this point have to be considered a top contender for the national title.

So losing to this Duke team at home is no mark of shame. What is of concern is not the loss, but the fact that (unlike in 1999 or 2001), Carolina was simply never competitive in this game. The only consistent open shots Carolina got were jump shots from James Michael McAdoo, shots Duke will live with (even though McAdoo did a nice job knocking them down). Otherwise Carolina failed to attack the basket or put Duke under pressure.

At the other end of the court, the Tar Heels had no answer for Mason Plumlee, Curry, or Duke's overall ball movement.

There are three possible interpretations of the Saturday night nightmare. The first and easiest to swallow is that Carolina simply had a very bad day at the same time Duke had a very good day, and that the pressure of falling behind early contributed to the lack of offensive rhythm all night long. Given another crack at it, and given a few coaching adjustments, Carolina's young players might be expected to play much better in a rematch.

Marcus Paige, for instance, had a poor game Saturday (he wasn't alone), but just two years ago the freshman phenom Kendall Marshall had a similar experience in the ACC Tournament final. That bad game didn't damage Marshall for life, and Paige and the other Tar Heels have already shown a capacity to bounce back from bad losses.

The second, more worrisome, interpretation is that Duke, the first team to play Carolina twice since the lineup switch, exposed structural holes that other teams might learn from. Consequently, realistic Carolina supporters should at this point be grateful for the 22 wins that are in the bank and be overjoyed if more than one or two victories are added to that total this season.

The third possibility is that Duke has figured out how to make life very hard for this Carolina team, but that most teams do not have Duke's weapons and Carolina in its current configuration still can compete well with most teams outside the national top five. This interpretation implies that Carolina has very little hope of cutting down the nets in Greensboro, but might still be able to make a substantial dent in the NCAA Tournament.

Ultimately, we'll find out which of these answers is most correct on the court. A potential matchup with Florida State in the quarterfinal Friday night could prove tricky as the Seminoles have seen Carolina recently and Leonard Hamilton probably has some adjustments up his sleeve.

A win in that game would set up a likely rematch with Duke of course. Any team with competitive pride should welcome that rematch, whatever the perceived odds. Needless to say, a win in that game would make Carolina's season.

But, win or lose, it's essential to this team's self-confidence that it plays far better basketball if the rematch happens. ACC play is tough at this time of year if you have clear vulnerabilities, as the Tar Heels certainly do, because everyone knows each other so well.

The NCAAs and fresh opposition might be a breath of fresh air for the Tar Heels. But you don't want to go into the NCAAs fresh off another highly discouraging loss in the manner of this past weekend. Carolina thus has a dual agenda this weekend: to compete for an ACC title, but also to restore the self-belief that was deflated on Saturday night.

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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