Yet it's easy to imagine that somewhere in the air between Norfolk, Virginia, and RDU International Airport Sunday afternoon, a harsh reality was settling in--if not for the players, then certainly for Doherty and his assistants. November was fun. There's a very good chance December won't be.
Looking at Carolina's December schedule, it's easy to understand why Doherty and his players talk about taking things one game at a time. Why look ahead to the murderer's row that awaits? In the next week alone, the young Tar Heels will take to the road to face not one, not two, but likely three opponents ranked in the top 25 nationally. Of course anything is possible in these games. After a couple of bad halves against Rutgers and ODU, one possible script has the Heels putting together a complete game with everyone clicking to score a major upset--maybe even two--along the way. If this team hasn't always shown it has the discipline or experience to accomplish this, it has shown the heart and raw talent to make it possible. But it's also possible--some would say likely-- that the Tar Heels will lose to Kansas (perhaps by a significant margin), bump up against a Stanford team with something to prove (or against a Florida team angry from an NIT semifinal loss), lose again, and then drop an extremely tough road game at Illinois. Looking closely at the opposition Carolina is likely to face, it's not impossible to think the Heels will end the first semester December 4 at .500, with Kentucky coming to Chapel Hill.
Now I can see the emails coming: "Don't underestimate these fierce competitors in Carolina Blue," someone will say. "These kids can hang with anybody in the country." "Why are you writers always such pessimists?" another will demand. "Quit talking down this team and crawl back into the hole you came from."
Tell you what. I think you're nuts if you really believe Carolina will get out of this three game stretch with more than a single win. You think I'm a jerk or worse for saying so. So how about we meet halfway. Here are three things the Tar Heels must do better if they are going to survive and thrive over the next seven days.
Rebound the basketball. Many will point to the rebounding margin in Carolina's first two games as a source of some delight, suggesting that the Tar Heels' relative lack of size might not be such a disadvantage as the season goes forward. But Old Dominion shredded Carolina, particularly on the offensive glass, where they enjoyed a 22-7 margin. That's an extra 15 possessions for the Monarch--possessions that easily could have turned the tide if ODU had shot a better percentage from the line or hit a few more easy buckets in close. And ODU managed this with a team that is, on average, no taller or more athletic than Carolina. Taking advantage of poor box-outs and occasionally half-hearted effort, ODU made the Tar Heels look sluggish and flat footed. And this is a particular concern because Carolina may well have tired legs in its second and third games of the week, particularly if its two key inside players, Sean May and Jawad Williams, continue to log more than 30 minutes a game.
Fortunately, the Heels have shown at times the kind of attitude and toughness on the glass that will be necessary to stave off the bigger, quicker players they are about to face. The basketball IQ of the team--particularly of the freshmen--is also impressive, so there's reason to think the players know what it will take to get the job done. But they need to do it consistently, sending all five players to the glass whenever possible and maintaining a focus on box-out responsibilities.
Recognize matchups on offense. As Carolina's shooting percentage sunk like a stone during Sunday's second half, lost in the process was the number of open looks that the Tar Heels sacrificed as their post players struggled to force up shots through double- and triple-teams. One admires Sean May's determination to power back up after a missed shot and put away a key basket late. One recognizes the impressive matchup problem created by 6-4 Rashad McCants posting up an opposing shooting guard and threatening to jump over a head or two on the way to an impressive finish. But on more than a few possessions Sunday--and this was true in each of Carolina's first two games as well--inside players took difficult shots instead of passing out for a repost or for a wide open look on the perimeter. This kind of recognition comes from time and experience, and UNC fans ought to take heart in the fact that this UNC squad shares the ball remarkably well for its relatively lack of time spent together. And it needs to be said that May's soft hands and shooting accuracy make him a good bet to sink just about anything he puts up inside. But if May is shooting a high percentage now, think about the percentage he'd shoot if he patiently passed out and accepted a second entry pass against a stretched defense--or think of the assist totals he might accumulate as a center dishing to an open McCants, Raymond Felton, or Melvin Scott on the wing.
Of course this isn't only an issue for the post players. Felton must recognize that many opposing point guards truly can't stay with him when he drives all the way to the basket, and if they do, odds are good he will be fouled. Felton doesn't need to be a scoring point guard on every night, but there are opportunities he has missed in all three games to break down an opponent off the dribble and create or shoot. This is a matter of recognizing and taking what the defense gives you, and it is a trait that needs to develop quickly for this team if they are to continue their early success.
Maintain energy and focus. Three times UNC has opened impressive early leads, only to falter for a stretch and let a weaker opponent regain valuable momentum. It is a tall order for any player to maintain a high level of energy over more than 32 minutes a game, of course, so part of the responsibility here lies with the coaches who must keep rotating athletes enough to keep the starters fresh when it counts--and who must seriously consider whether Carolina's starting five can play 35 minutes a game all season long. But the Tar Heels' lapses in concentration are also a matter of developing a killer instinct--of putting away a team when the opportunity presents itself. An Old Dominion team down 11 might not have the game to rise up and make a full comeback, but most of Carolina's opponents the rest of the way will. The Heels can't take their feet off the gas. They need to play all-out for every minute they are on the court, confident that if they need a rest, good talent is waiting to do the job.
Looking at this list, one trend emerges. You can't coach a player to be more athletic, and you can't magically produce more God-given talent. You can, however, teach and learn rebounding, offensive recognition, and focus. But the learning curve gets a whole lot steeper from here.
Briefly, let me offer a word of thanks to all those who have written in response to recent columns. I welcome your emails, and if you have specific questions or issues you'd like to see discussed in this space in coming weeks, I'll try to find space and time to reach into the mailbag.
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