*What those fans will see is a remarkable basketball game, far more interesting than the gaudy final score itself. First off, Roy Williams and his staff should send a big thank you to Jim Larranaga, returning favorite son Scott Cherry, and the rest of the George Mason staff and team. The Patriots turned in an inspired, battling performance in the first half, giving Carolina everything it wanted on the boards, fighting for loose balls, and then also turning in a very polished offensive performance. Many outmatched teams over the years have come into the Smith Center and jacked up three point shots indiscriminately on the off chance that they might get really hot. The Patriots did get an awful lot of open looks from outside in the first half, but those came as a product of taking the ball to the basket hard and intelligent offensive movement. Williams will surely find much to lecture his new team about regarding the first half defensive effort--a preliminary version was apparently aired during the halftime break--but give credit where it is due.
*That solid performance forced Carolina to play hard and play well, and certainly the first half performance on the offensive end was very credible. The second half was better though--much better--as Carolina wasted no time getting the spurt it needed. A 13-0 run early in the second half, centered around the remarkable offensive skills of Sean May, sealed this one, as the Bloomington product showed off the bank shot, the 17-foot jumper, and several layups involving either tough catches or athletic finishes. But May had plenty of help from his friends, too, with perhaps the single biggest play being Melvin Scott smartly deflecting an outlet pass and then feeding Jawad Williams for a 58-51 lead. Defensively, Carolina sealed off the perimeter shot effectively in the second half. George Mason was able to get Jai Lewis the ball against May without any weakside help for several inside scores, but the Patriots didn't drain a three or even get so much as a quality look from outside until well into the second half.
*Later on Rashad McCants had an offensive spurt of his own, and as is becoming pleasingly customary, Jawad Williams turned in another great all-around performance. Williams certainly improved from his rookie to sophomore years, but what we've seen so far out of Jawad as a junior more nearly resembles a quantum leap. Williams is approaching the game from inside out, becoming a capable inside scorer while picking his spots to display the perimeter scoring skills that will one day land him a very fat paycheck. Williams still goes about things relatively quietly, but gone are the days of invisible Jawad, where the wiry power forward might disappear for long stretches of games.
*At the end of the day, however, Sunday was all about Raymond Felton and his 18 assists--a new school record. There has some been very faint grumbling early on about the fact that Felton has not been racking up big scoring numbers and that we have not seen the talented sophomore unleash his full array of one-on-one (and one-on-two, -three or -four) skills. In general, it's a big mistake to equate scoring with leadership, but the even more important point is this: Felton is doing exactly what his head coach wants him to do: play great defense, distribute the ball, make his teammates better. Last year, especially late in the season, the Tar Heels often times quite literally rode on Felton's back. This year Felton is orchestrating his teammates, not dragging them as far as he can carry them.
That's why, probably not for the last time this year, May, Williams, and McCants all netted 20 points apiece on very high percentage shooting. It's also why Felton is likely to smash the school record for assists in a season this year by a wide margin. And it's a central reason why Carolina is going to be--indeed, already is--a much better offensive team than a year ago: your chances are just a heck of a lot better when you're shooting layups in transition or getting Sean May the ball on the blocks than when you're taking pull-up three pointers or relying on your point guard to drive through the whole defense and make something happen.
It would not be surprising if this change in emphasis and strategy has been a challenge for Felton himself, early on. But the fact is, later in the season, against the really good defensive teams and at the really tight moments, there will be times--perhaps as early as what is shaping up as a monumental Wake Forest game on December 20-- when Felton's offensive arsenal will be called upon to make a clutch play and win a game. Felton's offensive skills are a tremendous weapon to have in the back pocket in case everything else breaks down.
But hopefully that won't be necessary too often. Right now, it's an awful lot of fun watching the Tar Heels shoot layups and open shots by shooters capable of making them.
*It was also fun to see Carolina get a good challenge from an opponent, make the necessary adjustments while continuing to play smart basketball, get everybody involved, and have room to get valuable developmental minutes for the likes of Reyshawn Terry and impressive walk-on Jesse Holley. Put it together and you have a very good day at the Smith Center indeed--one that should have Carolina fans pressing the rewind button either literally or figuratively all week long.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.