Twelve years later, it's again difficult to know how the Tar Heels are going to bounce back from a nail-biting conference tournament loss to a good Georgia Tech team. Full credit needs to be given to both the Clemson Tigers (vastly improved in recent weeks, and winners of four of their five previous games coming into Friday) and the peaking Yellow Jackets for causing North Carolina all kinds of problems over two days. Carolina losing to a Georgia Tech team firing on all cylinders should not be regarded as nearly as large an upset as the regular season standings or national rankings might indicate.
Fair enough -- but there is still this legitimate, nagging worry: has this Carolina team already played its best basketball of 2005? The pessimistic answer to that question would note that one has to go back three full weeks, the home win over Clemson, to find a game in which the Tar Heels stamped their authority on the game in the first half. As Roy Williams noted after Saturday's loss, in retrospect the poor defensive first half in the home win over Florida State appears symptomatic of a team that has either lost some concentration or is running on less than a full tank of gas. Getting beat on the glass -- the Tar Heels conceded 33 offensive rebounds in two days in Washington -- is perhaps the clearest indicator of tired legs.
Indeed, for years a common criticism of the Williams-style running game is that it wears teams out so that they cannot peak during March. That criticism appeared especially cogent when Kansas (like North Carolina in the mid-1980s) had a streak of premature NCAA flameouts in the 1990s, but the fact is that Williams did reach the Final Four four times in 14 tournament-eligible years in Lawrence, including his last two. There appears to be little grounds for any sort of blanket statement about the relationship between an up-tempo style and the ability to sustain a deep run in March.
What matters is the particulars of a given team. Barring a major calamity, North Carolina should beat and beat handily their first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament this week. But what Tar Heel fans, coaches, and perhaps the players themselves will be most looking for is not just a W, but evidence of a mentally and physically refreshed team able to impose its will on the opposition in all phases of the game, from the opening tip.
Recalling 1993 is instructive for another reason as well -- that was the year the iron-clad correlation between ACC Tournament success and success in NCAA regional play was broken. The theory used to be that if a team didn't have it together by the ACC Tournament, they weren't going to have it in the NCAA Tournament either. Indeed, up until 1993, the Tar Heels had never, since the formation of the ACC, reached a Final Four without first winning the conference tournament. But in 1993 the Tar Heels broke that trend, and it's since happened twice more, in 1995 and 2000.
Of course, it's entirely possible to lose in the ACC Tournament and then stink it up in the NCAAs as well. Which way will this team go from here?
Again, it's hard to know in advance. The best harbinger from this weekend is of surely the impressive return of Rashad McCants. Probably McCants earned his starter's role back with his performance over two days, a development which might help the cause of jumping all over opponents early in the manner of the January and early February Tar Heels.
Assuming Carolina can survive its first-round tilt, what happens next will largely be a matter of matchups and the luck of the draw. If Carolina draws a senior-laden, guard-rich team that for whatever reason under-achieved a bit in the regular season -- say, a team analogous to Georgia Tech -- the Tar Heels could find themselves in a serious battle to advance to the round of 16.
Or, the Tar Heels might catch a break and find a slightly easier ride through the first week of tournament play -- we'll see. What is clear is that if Carolina is to achieve its March goals, it is going to have to be able to win a close game against a Georgia Tech-quality opponent, indeed probably more than one. Doing that means, in turn, that Carolina simply cannot give up 20-plus offensive rebounds again, and cannot commit so many unforced errors with the ball.
At the moment, pessimists about this team are having a field day, and there is surely reason to be concerned about recent trends. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that this group of players, having looked forward for so long to the chance to make a deep run in March, could fail to rise to the occasion now that the moment is here, at least in the effort and energy departments.
We'll soon enough know the answer to that key question. For now, if you're feeling nervous about this Carolina team, rest assured: Roy Williams is no doubt pretty nervous right now, too.
Additional notes from the MCI Center:
* 2005 has already made clear winning the ACC Tournament is not going to get any easier with expansion. No longer will top seeds like Carolina this year play the worst team in the conference in the quarterfinal; instead, they are going to have to play a pretty good team in the 8 or 9 seed, a team that will be capable of the big upset and that in some cases may still be vying for an NCAA berth themselves. That in turn will lead to more upsets in the quarterfinals in future tournaments, along the lines pulled off by N.C. State and so nearly by Clemson on Friday.
* Carolina fans had an impressive turnout on Friday and Saturday, and their vocal support absolutely played a part in the Tar Heels' tremendous late comeback against Clemson Friday. But as documented by the Washington Post and as will be clear to anyone who went to the tournament, there was one missing ingredient to not just the Carolina fan base, but all the fan bases represented in Washington: significant numbers of undergraduates. The results in terms of game atmosphere are all too predictable.
It's hard to imagine schools seriously increasing the student ticket allocation, but there are creative avenues the ACC should explore to rectify this situation. For instance, a ticket clearinghouse could be set up whereby fans buying tickets through their school could in advance agree to return their remaining tickets, should their team lose, to the clearinghouse, for a full refund on the unused tickets. The clearinghouse in turn could make those tickets available at the door to registered undergraduates (with ID) affiliated with one of the schools still playing in the later rounds.
Such a system wouldn't be perfect -- it wouldn't allow for the formation of true student sections, for instance -- but it would guarantee that boosters get to see all the games their school plays in while also allowing more students access to games at a fair price, thereby improving the atmosphere in the conference's showcase event. It also, needless to say, would take a bite out of the scalping market. Perhaps there are other ways to deal with the issue, but until the league does something to shake up the status quo it will have a hard time avoiding the charge that the ACC Tournament is simply a junket/party for the most well-endowed fans, with little room for what is typically the most passionate and most unconditionally supportive element of any fan base: students.
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. For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.