Motivating his team was not the challenge facing Roy Williams as this group played its first-ever NCAA Tournament game--indeed, if anything the Tar Heels looked a little too fired up at the beginning of the game. The challenge was helping his players adjust to Air Force's schemes on both sides of the court--schemes which worked to near perfection in the first half.
If it were easy to defend the Princeton-style offense or the backdoor cut, not even Princeton would employ it. Anyone who's had the experience of guarding that rare offensive player who is always in motion will know how easy it is to get lost for a split-second and lose your assignment--resulting in a layup. And any quickness challenged big guy can tell how frustrating it is to try to guard someone who can blow by you if you push up too close and can shoot over the top of you effectively if you do not.
North Carolina as a defensive unit and Sean May in particular had both those problems in the first half as Air Force racked up 50% FG shooting and a five point halftime lead. But by the end of the game, not only was Carolina playing smothering defense on the perimeter, but like a well-drilled back four on a good soccer team, the Tar Heels were moving as a unit every time an Air Force player made an off-the-ball cut going to the basket.
The result? Perhaps the best 12 minute stretch of defense of the entire season to close this one out as Air Force went over 8 minutes without a field goal. During that time span, the Tar Heels made literally every loose ball their own, continued to cover the defensive boards, and even began to anticipate Air Force's passes, with Jackie Manuel capping a splendid night with his steal and layup to make it 59-47 and put this one beyond all doubt.
Of course, it also helped that Carolina limited its turnovers dramatically in the second half, and finally hit some important jump shots. After a scoreless first half, Raymond Felton found the range for a well-worked 3 to take the lead at 46-44 (what are the odds of both Rashad McCants and Melvin Scott passing up shootable looks from 3 on the same possession, as they did on that shot?) A possession later, Felton beat the shot clock with a Cota-esque heave from about 25 feet to stake the Tar Heels to a 5 point lead. From then on, Carolina had this game by the neck, and for once didn't give their opponents any glimmer of hope in the stretch run.
This was a huge, vital win for Roy Williams' program, and give the coach an important share in this win. No one who watched Carolina play the first half could seriously question the effort (see, for instance, total rebounding domination)--the issue was adjusting in-game to Air Force's style of play. By the end of the game the Heels had the Academy completely figured out--and had raised their own level of effort from good to exceptional.
So put to rest any negative thoughts that might have crept in as this one unfolded (i.e. "this might be the last time a Carolina basketball team shaves its head bald" or "if this continues, we won't be talking about Weber State anymore") and take some pleasure in the fact that Carolina has passed its first test in this tournament.
Next up is a deep, big Texas team that faced a similar challenge in overcoming Princeton Thursday night (although it needs to be said that Air Force is a substantially better team than Princeton--and that Carolina got the job done Thursday even without an individual offensive explosion of the kind Brandon Mouton gave Texas in its first round game). Saturday is sure to be a completely different kind of game that will present challenges of a very different sort for the Tar Heels--for one thing, Carolina is going to have to find a way to win without the benefit of simply owning the backboard.
Needless to say, that second round matchup will be decisive in how fans and observers remember (or forget) this edition of the Tar Heels. The prospect of playing for a spot in the Sweet 16 is certainly enough to excite Carolina fans, and rightly so.
But there's also something exciting about seeing a team that wants it so bad that it is willing to throw itself all over the floor as the Tar Heels did so often on Thursday. If Carolina can dig as deep in the effort department against Texas as they did against Air Force, it will be a terrific game Saturday--and the Tar Heels will have a darn good chance of moving on to play some more next week, too.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.