I wouldn't at all be surprised to learn that somewhere in Chapel Hill, Dean Smith himself had a couple of tears rolling down the cheeks. There's nothing wrong with a little mourning for the end of a staggering, three decade long run of unbroken success, and there's nothing wrong with a lot of empathy for the players and staff on this 2002 team which lost way too many games but never lost its heart.
What heightened the emotions involved in the last night of the season was the fact that this group of Tar Heels never looked so much like a typical North Carolina team as they did against the Blue Devils. From the get-go, Carolina played an organized, disciplined game on offense, and did a solid job defensively and covering the defensive backboard for most of the night.
A better ballhandling team would perhaps not have given up the three or four steals for lay-ups to Duke which made the biggest difference in this game (but then again a better ballhandling team probably wouldn't have been 8-19 and a 7 seed in the ACC Tournament). There are probably only a couple of schools in the country this year (Maryland and maybe Kansas) that can legitimately aspire to flat out whip Duke over a 40 minute up-and-down game. For everyone else, the goal is to get into a situation where Duke has to hit their long 3s at crucial moments to put the game away (understanding that they are quite capable of making those shots).
Carolina pretty much achieved that goal, and for the Heels to be within 5 and have the ball so late in the game was a major accomplishment, even if the hoped-for fairy tale final 4 minutes did not unfold in Charlotte as it had for teams in Tallahassee and Charlottesville earlier this year.
Ironically, Carolina's throwback offense also solved for a night one of the season's worst problems: the difficulty of getting Kris Lang adequate space to work against a single defender in the paint. (Carlos Boozer's draft status probably went down a notch or two each time Lang drop-stepped him from the foul line for lay-ups.)
An even bigger contrast between Friday and much of the season is that Carolina simply looked like a smart basketball team. Individual decision-making, from every position on the court, as to shot and pass selection was often a struggle this year, and probably the single quality that most made this team hard to watch at times.
From an analytical point of view, those of us who have followed and tried to analyze Carolina basketball for a long time have had their job made easier by the fact that mistakes and flaws are easier to see in an isolated manner when the machine as a whole is running well (just as a typo in an otherwise pristine manuscript can jump out at a reader). Analyzing and trying to isolate the causes of total breakdowns is quite a bit more difficult. For that reason, I hesitate to take a strong view on the question of whether Carolina's woes in decision-making this year reflected mainly "talent" (a term too often left vague) and inexperience, or instead shortcomings in coaching.
It would be surprising, of course, if it were all one thing and not at all the other. Sportswriters and fans at times are prone to ignoring the notion of multiple causation of events. When things go bad, it is often the result of the contribution of a number of factors, operating both singly and in interaction with one another. The basic story of this 2002 team, in my judgment, is that based on skill and experience alone, this club had 8 or 9 losses (Duke, Maryland, Wake, Indiana, Kentucky, Connecticut) pretty much guaranteed on opening day, meaning that the Heels would need to win something like 16 of the 19 remaining "winnable" games to be in the hunt for an NCAA bid, 14 to ensure an NIT bid.
Dean Smith would have probably considered it one of his finest coaching jobs to take this team to a 16-12 record. Even so, those of us who worried starting last spring with Forte's departure that such a scenario might not come to pass and that this team might have difficulty duplicating the achievements of, say, the 1996 and 1999 teams, had something like a 14-14 scenario in mind. I don't know of any analyst anywhere, in fact, who predicted Carolina to have a losing season this year (even if the Heels were in retrospect vastly flattered to be in anyone's preseason top 20). And looking back at the losses, it's not hard to find at least 6 games that could or probably should have been won by the Heels, games in which Carolina got out-executed by teams of comparable or even weaker talent.
The troubling question, then, is not so much the first 12 or 14 Carolina losses, which were not a huge shock based on personnel, but how it ran all the way to 20. Certainly the injury to Jason Capel came at the worst possible time in January, ahead of an eminently winnable game at FSU and continuing to the home game against State in which, with Capel, the Heels should at least have been competitive for 40 minutes. Another critical moment was the home loss to Virginia, when the Heels were just 5-7 and it didn't seem unreasonable to think the team could put it together.
At root, however, the biggest factor in this season going so awry was simply getting off on a very wrong foot, the pressure that created, and the confidence it shattered in the Tar Heels (and inspired in its opponents). Say what you will about Hampton and Davidson, but they are both (barring an MEAC upset) going to the big dance, and they are both programs that are used to winning. Playing teams that are cohesive and know how to win, but at a lower tier of hoops than the ACC, is a great test for a Carolina team in most years, but this year that test was too hard to pass. Simply put, the Heels were not ready to play against outside opponents when the season started.
Whether they would have been more ready with another two weeks of practice (this business of starting the season in mid-November is a little ridiculous anyway) is an unanswerable question. But it was a shock for Carolina fans, so used to seeing Carolina being more prepared than opponents in the earlier stages (a key element in the success recipe of the ‘96 and ‘99 seasons), to see the lack of identity present in those very early games. Given that Carolina again next year will be relying so heavily on freshmen, one would think that re-evaluating what happened in preseason practice this year, and how it might have been more effective, must be high on Matt Doherty's agenda going into the off-season.
To be sure, Doherty's subsequent tactics and personnel decisions can also be critiqued--personally, I would have liked to see the two Brians, Bersticker and Morrison, have bigger roles. Playing Bersticker alongside Lang for at least a few minutes each game might have helped the offense significantly by creating a little more space for Lang, and I was surprised that this was not at least tried in a substantial way.
Morrison is a hard case, and one can understand the rationale for the short-leash approach Doherty seemed to use with his talented sophomore most of the year. On the other hand, for no Carolina player was the gap between potential and achievement greater than for Morrison, and one wonders what would have happened if Doherty had gone the other way and just put Morrison out there for 30 minutes for three or four straight games to see what would happen. Yes, Morrison was and in the future likely will be likely to commit a bunch of turnovers, but that has to be weighed against his creative ability, especially on a team like this year where creativity was in short supply.
At the end of the day, however, to speculate on what might have happened had Doherty played the cards in his deck in a different fashion is, at best, guesswork. What is certain is that this team was behind where it needed to be, and where most people would have reasonably expected it to be, at the start of the season when the tone was set. No Carolina team needed more badly to have a good start than this one, and it didn't happen. Making sure that scenario doesn't repeat itself next fall will surely be a central preoccupation for Doherty over this unusually long offseason.
Can any good come out of an 8-20 season? That's not a question Carolina fans have ever had to ask themselves. In important senses, I think, the answer is both no and yes.
From Matt Doherty's point of view, and from the point of view of those who want him to succeed as a head coach, the primary answer is, no, 8-20 doesn't help much. Doherty is going to face heightened scrutiny next season, and if Carolina is again 0-2 or 0-3 out of the gate next fall, his dream job really could turn into a Carolina blue nightmare, even more so than this year.
Realistically, what we are looking at is a two-year project to get Carolina back in the top 10-15. I don't want to set an upper limit on what next year's team might accomplish, and I absolutely do not think that the bar for success should be set lower than an NCAA bid. But betting on rookies is always at least a slightly risky business, no matter how talented. Even if one is 100% confident that the individuals coming in are extremely talented and capable, no one knows yet how they will interact with one another or with the returning players.
For next season, probably the biggest single factor is the degree to which Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May, in particular, are able to make reasonably intelligent basketball-smart decisions from the get-go, and to resist the temptation to try to do too much themselves. If all three exhibit a good understanding of the game early on, and Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel come back stronger and wiser, and Boone and Scott continue their progress, Carolina might be a pretty good team (though limited, unless there are unexpected contributions at an early stage from a Damion Grant or Byron Sanders).
Certainly, there's no guarantee that will happen next year. But if this group of players can stay together, by 2004 Carolina really should be back among the national elite. It's neither premature, alarmist, nor news to anyone to observe that Matt Doherty's job security almost certainly depends on that happening. The fact that it must be said in such stark terms right now, unfortunately, owes something to the fact of being 8-20 this year. Even a 14-14 or 15-13 year that culminated in a NIT bid this season could have gone down in the books as at least a partial success on Doherty's resume. I would much prefer that Carolina–and Doherty–were in that hypothetical situation at the moment.
But I think there is some good that has come out of this season–good that could in fact help Doherty over the long run. For one thing, Carolina fans have been a huge plus this season. In sifting through the 600-plus surveys collected for "More Than a Game," it became pretty clear to me that the culture of the Internet message board and the spectacle of anonymous fans bashing players and coaches, which lazy journalists have too often gotten in the habit of using as a barometer of fan opinions, was in fact not representative of most Carolina fans or the attitude they have towards coaches or players.
Well, this season proved that point in a much more visible way: fans still went to the Smith Center, they cheered hard, they got restless once or twice but didn't boo, and even (from what I could tell on my visits this year) seemed to have a reasonably good time. Yes, 4-5,000 or so seats went unfilled for most of the games, but to be honest, if those ticket holders didn't feel capable of coming to the game and supporting this team wholeheartedly, it was best for all concerned that they stayed away. Similarly, the fans who filled MJ's "23" for Doherty's radio show week after week also deserve a huge amount of credit in helping the coach keep his head up.
Like any school, Carolina has some fairweather fans, but it also has many, many fans with pretty amazing loyalty, and those who support the Tar Heels (and I think "supporter" actually is a better word than "fan") have handled (at least publicly) 8-20 as well or better than I or most would have thought possible. Maybe, just maybe, this experience of losing will make us all better fans too: more appreciative of future success (and less upset at, say, our next loss in the Sweet 16); a little less haughty and vainglorious toward other schools' fans; and perhaps even more aware that for most of us, attachment to UNC basketball runs deeper than the wins and losses, and that a little (or even a lot) of losing isn't going to weaken our affection for the Carolina blue uniforms.
Personally, there were one or two games this year I dreaded seeing and watched mostly out of a sense of duty, but I was actually as excited about most of the games this year as any other. Indeed, perhaps sensing that a good performance might be on offer from the Heels, I felt the same butterflies before the Duke game that one would usually associate with a Sweet 16 game. I suspect many other fans had similar experiences. Whether that sense of excitement would eventually deaden if Carolina began losing year in and year out is a question I hope is never answered, but I think there is some good in having on the record a resounding "yes" to the question of whether most Carolina basketball fans, by and large, can handle the occasional abject failure.
Another good moment that came out of this season was the show of support from the former lettermen before the Florida State home game. That was an important gesture: this year's players really did need to hear that yes, they are still part of the Carolina basketball tradition, and no, no one whose opinion you should care about is ashamed of you. But equally important was, by all accounts, the graceful manner in which Matt Doherty handled the occasion and accepted the show of support. If Doherty is going to get it done in Chapel Hill, it's not going to be a result solely of his own actions: it's going to depend a great deal on the contributions and support of many other people. Doherty should not think twice about eliciting help wherever he can find it, and in fact should be actively cultivating the message that "we, the Carolina family, all pulling together, are going to get this turned around." (The "we" pronoun is important here.)
It is not a secret at this point that the off-the-court transition in the basketball office has not gone as smoothly as one would have hoped, and critical quotes about Doherty and the changes he has ringed in have popped up in the media from former players. Looking from the outside, this looks to me like a structural problem: a new coaching staff with a mostly new office staff is not going to be able to maintain the same type of family atmosphere to which the 200-plus former players are accustomed without some deliberate effort and investment. The Athletic Department would be wise to make such a deliberate investment, such as creating a position for a liaison between the basketball office and the former lettermen. The "family" atmosphere is a unique and even indispensable part of Carolina basketball, and maintaining as positive a relationship as possible between Doherty and the former players is critical to the head coach's long term prospects. (At the same time, as Doherty has surely already learned, you can't hope or expect to please everyone.)
It's been said before and will surely be said again: Matt Doherty has a hard job. Not only are the on the court standards at Chapel Hill very high, the Carolina job is probably, by nature of the program and legacy that Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge established, the one job in the country where the off-the-court character of the program, the way that players and people are treated, is also of fundamental importance. Doherty has to pay attention to both aspects of the job, and that's not an easy task.
The area of his job that most overlaps both goals, and the area of the job that in the end will probably be decisive, is the quality of the relationships Doherty and his staff forge with his basketball players, on and off the court. The fact that this year's 2002 team never resorted to blame-casting, avoided internal dissension, and supported one another is a remarkable accomplishment. Usually we think that losing breeds all kinds of problems, but that appears not to have been the case in this situation. The players get a lot of credit for that, but so too do the coaches.
Matt Doherty has never been rooted in one place over a period of years as head coach, so it's particularly foolish to judge how well he will be able to relate to his players and build deep relationships of trust based on what supposedly happened at Notre Dame, or what supposedly happened with Joseph Forte, or whatever. What matters now is the question of how he handles this group of players and the ones coming in, how they respond, and how that interaction deepens over time.
As with so much else, the answer to that question is uncertain. No one can honestly say at this moment, I don't think, that it is guaranteed that the Doherty regime is going to be as successful and as long as everyone hoped; but it was not guaranteed that Dean Smith would get it right (on all levels) in 1964 or 1965 either. I don't think it's smart to bet against him, however. Carolina getting it turned around in the next couple of years and Doherty getting a great deal of the credit is still the most likely scenario for the short-term future.
But if that happens, and if Doherty successfully navigates the difficult waters of the present into a stable and successful future, the credit won't be his alone: More than a footnote of credit will have to be given in future annals to the players who didn't quit playing, and the fans who didn't quit cheering, during this difficult, unique, but in its own way rewarding 2002 season.
Guest columnist Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Mean So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/carolinabook.html or at amazon.com. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.