Thad: Preseason Thoughts

It feels almost like a normal November: football season in Chapel Hill has pretty much run its course, fans are ogling over the new basketball talent in town, and a Carolina head coach is doing his best to downplay expectations.

It feels almost like a normal November: football season in Chapel Hill has pretty much run its course, fans are ogling over the new basketball talent in town, and a Carolina head coach is doing his best to downplay expectations. Indeed, in the history of college basketball, probably no group of fans has displayed more anticipation, enthusiasm, and even optimism about a basketball team picked to finish 7th in their own conference than Carolina fans are displaying right now.

For the most part, that's all well and good--especially to the degree that fans realize that what we are about to witness is not instant, unblemished success but the start of a two-year process of development, a process that will likely be agonizing at times but could plausibly culminate in banners being raised and nets being cut down.

Excitement about a coming basketball season is and should be normal in Chapel Hill. But here's another part of what not long ago was considered "normal" that I hope returns this winter: that attention is focused is much as possible on the players and their development, and not upon the coaching staff (or in particular, their status).

The last five years have been heady, almost intoxicating times for people following and commenting about Carolina basketball: A time of coaches retiring, new ones taking their place, and dramatic decisions being made about the program's future. One suspects that many writers and perhaps some fans have almost gotten used to the idea that Big News may be just around the corner, at any time.

What can get lost in the shuffle once that habit sets in, however, is close attention to the actual processes of player development. Such forgetfulness is costly in two ways:

First, it tempts one to forget that Carolina basketball is not, in the end, primarily about the coaches and their personalities, but about the young people in the program. Ultimately, the lived experience of players, their growth as students, people, and athletes, must be the benchmark for evaluating any program. Coaches are essential, but the coaches are there for the sake of the players, not the other way around.

Second, it can lead observers to ask the wrong, or at least an incomplete, set of questions, in trying to evaluate a season as it unfolds. The temptation for any sportswriter is to try to make a claim about The Grand Scheme of Things based on what just happened in the last game or last week--does this coaching staff know what it's doing? Is Carolina going to get turned around? etc, etc. What can get ignored in trying to answer those kinds of big questions too quickly is adequate attention to the micro-processes of player development, and indeed the substance of the game itself. That's an especially glaring omission in the case of very young players, whose confidence, abilities, and effectiveness can change rapidly from month to month and even week to week.

Right now, there is a sorely needed sense of good feeling about Carolina basketball, mostly generated by the new players on campus and the sense of a new beginning. The best way to keep that good feeling going--and I mean after the first loss or two--is to continue to focus on those players and how they are learning and hopefully improving over time.

The quickest way to evaporate that sense of good feeling, on the other hand, is to turn every game into a Referendum on Matt Doherty and His Staff: As entertaining as some might find it, it will ultimately benefit no one to turn "Matt Doherty" into a kind of stock that goes up or goes down after every game, and to focus attention on whether that stock is going up or going down at the moment.

Political reporters call that kind of thinking "horse race reporting," often with scorn. That kind of thinking is, in my mind at least, deeply inappropriate and also unhelpful in the case at hand.

Everyone knows that, having assembled the team Doherty wanted to coach, the current staff needs to show over the next two seasons it can utilize available talent, help individuals develop over time, and employ strategies which give the players on hand the best chance to win--and eventually, win at a high level. Everyone also knows that at least some signs of progress towards those goals this year is more or less essential.

Most would also acknowledge that relatively harmonious player-coach relations, building on the progress that appears to have been made over the summer as well as the enthusiasm of the new players, is absolutely essential, both for its own sake and because the program simply cannot absorb any more early departures--the safety net is gone.

But the proper time to take stock and ask whether all these things are happening is the end of the season--not after every single game, press conference, or interview. That would be true just about any season, but it's especially true with a young team, and indeed a team that has two potentially crucial players who have been full-time basketball players for only a very short time. A team like that, no matter how talented, is going to have ups and downs, ups and downs which reflect not so much what a coach happened to say or not say in the previous halftime speech or timeout huddle but the normal unpredictability of young players' development.

To be sure, the bigger picture questions about where the program is going are not going to be simply forgotten by anyone concerned. The key to enjoying this season however, will probably lie in an ability to withhold premature judgment on those issues, and to focus from game to game mostly on the players and their efforts, how they react to difficult situations, how they handle whatever success they enjoy, how they seem to be enjoying their experience, how they are improving from week to week. It may also lie in remembering that we're talking about a two-year process here--and that even in this season, it's not over until it's over. (With players this young and this talented, even if the Tar Heels do finish as low as 7th in the ACC, one would not want to rule out the possibility of the team getting hot just in time to do well in and even win the conference tournament.)

There will be plenty of time to debate the "big picture" later on--after the season. But even big picture narratives about "programs" and so forth are formed from dozens of much smaller narratives, ranging from Rashad McCants' shot selection to Jackie Manuel's decision-making with the ball to Damion Grant's conditioning.

Let's focus these next few months on those smaller, concrete questions--that is, the mundane details which form the building blocks of successful basketball teams.

Such an approach can help avoid the pitfalls of premature judgments and misplaced questions. It might also help make the experience of observing the season about to unfold as interesting, rewarding and fun as possible--whatever the win-loss record. .

Thad Williamson is author More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at Thad welcomes your emails at

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