The 2002-03 season will be the most exciting season ever. Instead of the Carolina faithful "expecting" great things and being disappointed when the NCAA run does not end up in a championship, this year there will be "hope" for great things. Expectations are time bombs waiting to go off. Hope, though it won't spring eternal if the Heels go 8-20 again, is indeed a wonderful thing.
It was a great run. Most fans would stop short of calling the run boring, but most would agree that it did become routine. If success can be described as a rut, then UNC was in one. Let's face it. It had to end eventually. Nothing lasts forever. As this season gets underway, lets take a look at the reasons for optimism for this campaign.
Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants cannot get hurt under any circumstances. This is a team rule that Matt Doherty will put into effect immediately. They will not be allowed to be injured. Doherty will use the type of logic that Ike Turner used to use with Tina, "If y-y-you die Anna Mae, I-I-I-swear I'll kill ya!" It's going be that kind of decree.
Assuming those two abide by the rules, Felton/McCants will be the best backcourt in Chapel Hill since MJ and The Jet. The landscape of college basketball has changed dramatically over the past few years. No longer are senior-laden teams the rule. For the Tar Heels, that's super. If last year's 8-20 had happened in 1988, it would have been twice as hard to get back to elite status. As it stands, one monster recruiting class like last year's can get you back in gear in a hurry. Freshmen are more apt to be ready for college basketball these days, especially guards. These guys are put through the ringer during summer play in national forums and holiday tournaments such as the Beachball Classic. Plus, with the familiarity these youngsters have with one another because of those experiences, the transition to college ball is not as overwhelming as it used to be. The superstars of the game are underclassmen. Increasingly, the guy who is supposed to be "the man" on most teams is a sophomore, in some cases even a freshman. So, even though there are still as many seniors playing college basketball as there ever has been, the quality of those seniors is not nearly as high on the majority of the nation's elite teams.
In the ACC this year, the situation is even more dramatic. Everybody is young. Look around the league. The only two teams that will start senior point guards are Clemson (Edward Scott) and Maryland (Steve Blake). Duke will start junior Chris Duhon at the point, but his running mate will be no more than a sophomore. UVa will start a transfer (Todd Billet) and FSU's entire backcourt will probably be junior college transfers. Georgia Tech will depend on a freshman (Jarrett Jack), as will Wake Forest (Justin Gray). Julius Hodge, a sophomore, will be auditioning for Herb Sendek in the pre-season to be handed the reins to the Wolfpack.
Felton and McCants, looking out at the relative league-wide inexperience, will surely not be intimidated. Those two are studs and their presence in this year's squad's mix will raise the level of play of everyone else on the roster. First, no one can guard Raymond Felton. His talent level is as high as anyone who has ever played the point at UNC. Could he have some growing pains? Possibly. But, it is more likely that he will experience a Kenny Anderson/Stephon Marbury, type of freshman year. His knack for playing big almost on command is already legendary. A pessimist might say, "He needs to prove it on the college stage." Whatever.
The reality is that anyone Felton will be matched up against in the ACC will be either a relative peer, or simply not his match athletically. The young man knows how to play. If he were the only superstar recruit in this class, optimism would still be high. He's not.
Which brings the discussion to Rashad McCants. Mr. McCants is a load. If based merely on his physical stature, one could surmise that he will be capable of handling himself versus any two guard around the league. Based additionally on his athleticism and skill level, one could make the case that he will be among the better players at his position. But, here's the kicker. Look at his track record for winning in summer basketball and at the high school level. He has always been the go-to guy and his teams always win at a staggering clip. What makes those who know how good this guy really is so excited is that on most college teams he would overwhelmingly be the centerpiece of the recruiting class. The fact that he's not is enough to make a real Carolina fan giggle with anticipation.
Rashad McCants, maybe the most charismatic slasher/shooter/scorer/rebounder/defender entering college basketball this year, is going to be matched in a backcourt with Raymond Felton!
Which brings us to the third guy. Sean May.
How important is this guy? May is a difference maker. As with McCants, if not for Felton's presence, he would be looked upon as the savior of the program. Inside or out, he is as proficient and technically precise a post player as the Carolina program has ever seen. He's not Rasheed in athleticism, or Montross in height, or even Stackhouse in explosiveness. But, he gives "this" team exactly what it needs down low, someone that the opposition has to gameplan for. He has top shelf post skills and he can really, really shoot. The intangibles with him are the same as the freshmen backcourt. He is a winner who knows how to play.
With the majority of this year's offensive attack running through his wonderfully sure hands, May can name how many points he wants to score. Is he that good? Well...yeah. But, that's not the only reason to be excited. Sean May brings a set of skills, heft, and savvy that makes him potentially a superstar at the college level. What is most exciting, though, is that if he had entered Carolina's program as the most highly regarded recruit, he would be seen as the guy upon whose shoulders the program's rebuilding process would lie. The fact that he's not the most highly regarded should provide even a huge reason for the most ardent Chicken Littles to relax.
Sean May, maybe the most complete post player entering college basketball this year, is going to get to play with Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants!
Last, let's take the four returnees to this squad and present the same scenarios. Jawad Williams is a star quality athlete, capable of taking over games with his combination of length, quickness, shooting, and versatility. Last year he was the only player on the floor in a light blue jersey that was the skilled/athletic peer of the other team's best offensive threat. This year he'll have three other teammates who are as good as he is...and he will be a year more experienced. What is most exciting about Jawad's place on this year's team, is that last year's team needed him to be a 15- to 16-point per game scorer if they were going to be competitive. In retrospect, that was asking a bit much for him considering that the players around him were so limited.
This year, he gets to play with Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and Sean May.
Melvin Scott was forced to play point guard last year out of sheer necessity. He looked like a fish out of water. Known as an explosive scorer in high school. He never got to cut loose like he would have wanted. This year, playing off the ball, Carolina fans should get to see the player they expected last year, a Shammond Williams-type shooter/scorer. So instead of him being a guy who has to be a major factor in order for UNC to be an upper ACC level team, he now becomes a guy who can be Dante Calabria/ Ranzino Smith/Max Owens. Remember Hubert Davis before his breakout senior season? That is what the Heels need from Melvin Scott, a highly skilled and athletic luxury.
Jackie Manuel and Will Johnson are the glue guys that every team needs, Manuel on the defensive end and the boards, and Johnson as an offensive ball conveyer and shooter. They will be invaluable. Both started frequently on last year's team. They were depended on for point production and big plays. Neither was capable of contributing in that manner. Now, they become pieces that fit. They are the kinds of guys Carolina has always had on its roster, players who are capable of having major impacts on contests, but not depended on to do so. Manuel and Johnson are Matt Doherty, Steve Bucknall, Kevin Madden, Steve Hale, Henrik Rodl, and Mike Pepper. That's not just good company. That's great company.
The 2002-03 Tar Heels are not a National Championship caliber squad. Heck, they may not even make the tournament. But, the presence of the big three freshmen has changed the talent level on this team significantly and made the team an exciting collection. Now there are guys on the squad capable of taking over offensively, guys capable of handling the athletic task defensively, and enough shooters to round out the equation. It will be so much fun to watch it all come together, making this the most anticipated Carolina basketball season ever.
Paul Swann is a freelance writer who has written for several recruiting web sites, local weekly newspapers, and sports magazines. He is currently writing a book on college basketball entitled, "The Next Seat Over: An in-depth look at college basketball through the eyes of the country's best Division I assistants."
Paul has been a national radio talk show host as well as hosting local shows for several years in Greensboro, Charlotte, and Columbia. He currently is the basketball "expert" on Teddy Heffner's "Talkin' Sports" and this winter will embark on a new endeavor as the high school basketball coordinator for SCVarsity.com.
Paul's first love is coaching, and he coaches for Columbia (S.C.) High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.