Mark: Misreading the Manuel

Barely a month into the season, controversy is already swirling around Carolina basketball.

The Tar Heels put up nearly 200 points in the most entertaining Blue-White scrimmage in recent memory. They followed up this captivating performance by dispatching the three-point wizards from EA All Stars in workmanlike fashion, shrugging off an early deficit and a late run by the opposition to notch a convincing win. The players have shown an almost staggering athleticism, and only four short weeks into the season, there are already impressive signs that team chemistry has improved. If you attended Saturday's exhibition victory and didn't know much about this year's Heels, when you saw Jawad Williams streak down the lane to share a picture-perfect give-and-go with Sean May for a dunk, would you have possibly guessed Carolina was fielding a team of six freshmen and three sophomores? I think not.

And yet, for all these impressive early signs, there is a fly in the ointment. It appears the coaching staff has a serious problem.

No, it has nothing to do with the staff's relative youth, nor with their limited ties to the marrow of tradition for Carolina basketball. The concerns don't relate to Matt Doherty's difficulty in locking up a top center this fall. And there has been nary a whisper of discord between players and coaches on the practice court, so that's not it either.

The problem is far more severe than that. Apparently the staff is unable to judge the talent on the team adequately to prepare an appropriate starting lineup and system of player rotation for the game.

Never mind the results. Two of Carolina's best players started the game on the bench, and some in Tar Heel Nation are up in arms. How could the staff have made such a gravely bad decision? Don't they know anything about talent?

Seriously, I defy anyone to remind me of a bigger tempest in a teapot. In the first exhibition game of the season, the Tar Heels hit the century mark, put three players over 20 points for the game, won by double digits, and in doing so joined the company of No. 4 ranked Alabama as one of only three teams to beat the EA All Stars this preseason. Yet some cannot resist the chance to find pain in this pleasure. Instead of celebrating what might be a harbinger of great success to come--or at minimum a flash of brilliance at the start of a long, hard road toward improvement--these fans have fixated on an imaginary battle for minutes between a sophomore swing guard and his freshman teammate, creating a problem where essentially there is none.

I've done as much arm-chair quarterbacking as the next guy. After all, it's what fans do--second guessing the coaches is part of the fun, I suppose, and we fancy ourselves to rival the professionals in our ability to assess who has it on the court and who doesn't. But after what was arguably the most satisfying Carolina basketball performance in eighteen months, it's hard to understand why some have chosen to make the story about Matt Doherty's decision to start Jackie Manuel over Rashad McCants. You'd think those were the most fateful seven minutes in UNC sports history.

Nevertheless, I concede the point that starting lineups for a new team are always a subject for analysis, and if some people want to fixate on that particular matter, fine. In fact, I agree that Doherty's impression of Solomon in dividing minutes among a talented, ambitious bunch of young guns is one of the most interesting and important subplots of this basketball season. Fans remember 1994 and the difficulties inherent in the volatile mix of talent on that Carolina team. They wonder if this will be a repeat of that often amazing, ultimately frustrating year.

When these matters spill over into questions about the fundamental abilities of a single player based on two exhibition performances, however, something is amiss. Can you say "rush to judgement"?

Coming off a workmanlike 5-10 shooing performance with 6 rebounds and 4 steals in the Blue-White scrimmage, Manuel began his game Saturday night by playing solid positional defense against a guy who was so hot from beyond the arc he could have ignited wet cardboard. He swooped in out of nowhere to snag a defensive rebound, and was hustling after another loose ball when he came down funny and aggravated a nagging groin injury. And so he had the bad luck of sitting for most of the night as McCants racked up an impressive--and occasionally thrilling--23 points.

How these facts translate into a situation where Manuel is undeserving of a starting spot is open to debate. How they translate into a situation where some suggest that he might lose his playing time altogether is nothing short of baffling.

Here, I would argue, is the basic situation: between the off guard, small forward, and big forward positions, Matt Doherty must fill 120 minutes of playing time a game. That's a lot to go around. Early indications are that he has six players--Jawad Williams, Will Johnson, David Noel, Rashad McCants, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott--to cover these minutes in an aggressive, up-tempo style of play that will demand frequent rotation of fresh athletes into the mix. Each of these six players brings a particular set of skills and leadership qualities that will allow Doherty and his staff a great deal of flexibility in responding to opposing lineups and the inevitable off night here or there for one of their own players. Between these six, the Tar Heels have more team speed, passing, and shooting ability at the three positions than they have had in years.

How can this be a problem? More importantly, how does this add up to a situation where Jackie Manuel becomes the odd man out a mere month into the season?

Believe that Carolina's starting lineup will change between these first exhibition games and the last games of the season. Believe that Rashad McCants and David Noel will give Doherty plenty of reasons to put them on the court. Believe Melvin Scott will continue to hone his midrange game and serve as a key second ballhandler alongside Jon Holmes during Raymond Felton's rare rest breaks. And believe Jackie Manuel's quick hands on defense, willingness to drive the lane, and steady outside shooting will give the Tar Heels valuable options at the two and three. Believe that he might not start for the whole season, but he'll get his minutes, and Carolina needs every one.

That some would suggest otherwise, especially this early in the season, is nothing short of unbelievable.

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