Defense – The Tar Heels won the Preseason NIT not because of their half court offense, fast break or certainly their rebounding. UNC won because of its smothering man-to-man defense. The Heels extend their man defense well out onto the perimeter yet still cut off passing lanes exceptionally well. They communicated frighteningly well, especially taking into account their youth. Kansas and Stanford combined to shoot just 7-31 from 3-point range and 42-113 overall from the field. Consider that the Heels blocked 12 shots, had 25 steals, forced 42 turnovers (allowed just 18 assists), and held the opposition to 34 percent from the field, no wonder they walked away with the NIT title.
Rashad McCants – McCants scored 18 points in the finals against Stanford and 25 against Kansas. He was 17-26 from the field and abused anyone that tried to defend him either on the wing or baseline. McCants needs a lot of work on dribbling and passing (0 assists and four turnovers in NYC), but his amazingly quick first step is often enough. McCants was named the tournament's MVP.
Raymond Felton – Felton finally had a big scoring game, netting 16 points against the Cardinal. Furthermore, he appears more comfortable running the show. In his words Felton doesn't care if he ever scores, but that he will if necessary. But his stroke on Friday showed the worrywarts who questioned his touch that he is fine. Also note that he handed out 11 assists and had three steals in the two games.
Jawad Williams – Williams' floor game has improved tremendously since last season. His defense has been outstanding. Despite being 6-foot-9, Williams defends his man 25-30 feet from the basket and has also excelled forcing traps as well as giving the appearance of an oncoming trap. He had 24 points in New York and made few mistakes offensively. One area of concern is on the glass, as he grabbed just seven rebounds in the two games.
Jackie Manuel – Manuel has already developed into one of the best defenders in UNC history. Seriously, this guy can flat out D it up. He is a lock down defender who not only plays his man exceptionally well, but offers his mates tremendous help, often swatting away passes or shots, or simply stealing the ball. He anticipated well in NYC and was credited with four steals. But Manuel's value won't likely show up in those statistical areas, instead it will be in the final score. He's barely mediocre offensively, but remains enormously valuable because of his defense and ability to run the floor.
Sean May – May didn't have a great scoring week (20 points on 8-20 shooting) but he was sensational on defense and made put-backs difficult for the Jayhawks and Cardinal. He blocked six shots, had six steals and pulled down 18 rebounds in the games. He also did a great job of keeping balls alive he didn't rebound, and staying between the rebounder and the basket, defending the put-back. His savvy and patience is such an incredible asset to the Heels.
Melvin Scott – Scott was terrific coming off the bench, scoring 10 points, dishing out five assists, and collecting seven steals at the Garden. His floor game and presence were crucial to the Heels' success. He handled the ball exceptionally well, was in control on the floor, and logged quality minutes at the point, to which he is grateful for last year's experience of being forced to learn the position because of UNC's obvious weaknesses there.
Bench – Aside from Scott, the Tar Heels received quality bench play from David Noel, Will Johnson, Jonathan Holmes and Byron Sanders. Noel had an excellent first half defensively against Stanford. Johnson and Holmes were forced into action in the second half of the title game because of foul trouble and performed well. And Sanders was more active and played with increased confidence.
Matt Doherty – It's difficult all of a sudden to find someone to admit to having been a part of the "Dump Doh" brigade. The freshmen have been incredible and the sophomores have improved a great deal, but without Doherty's teachings and guidance, the Heels wouldn't be unbeaten right now. The players say he is more patient this year, and knows when to be their coach as well as their friend. Scott said he can be like a bigger brother. Wearing the championship t-shirt is an example of the looser, gentler Matt Doherty. So is the 5-0 record.
Maturity – The young Heels played like mature veterans in New York. Kansas is much more experienced and Stanford has an edge there as well, but Carolina played with more poise and ultimately confidence. It's as if the Heels knew they would win the tournament. These young men are mature on and off the court, and appear capable of handling the adulation that is clearly headed their way.
Championship – The Preseason NIT is the most prestigious in-season tournament, and the youngest team in college basketball is now its champion. Many are asking if this is too much too soon. Perhaps, but time will tell. Remember that the youthful 1998-99 team won the same title the year after Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and Shammond Williams left and didn't finish the season strong, losing to Weber State in the NCAA tournament.
UNC band – Kudos to UNC's band being at the Garden. While the band doesn't handle football games well, it is tremendous for basketball.
"Tar … Heels" – Carolina fans would be happy to know that the chant of "Tar …. Heels" was heard loud and clear during both games. UNC had more fans than the other three schools combined.
Rebounding – The Tar Heels were outrebounded 87-59 overall and a woeful 32-16 on the offensive glass. The Heels crash the boards and go after the ball hard, but they are inconsistent boxing out and just don't have the beef to be above average on the glass. However, they do tip a lot of balls and as a result many of the opposition's offensive boards are five, six, and seven feet from the basket, and there is usually a Tar Heel there to defend the put-back. The evidence is that UNC had more second-chance points than Kansas (8-5) and Stanford (17-15).
Sean May's scoring – "Big Poetry" shot just 8-20 from the field and 4-10 from the charity stripe in NYC. He has a nice touch but the ball just didn't fall. Some have questioned the 3-pointer he took, but May can hit that shot. For UNC to beat such high caliber teams with May struggling to score is an indication of UNC's potential.
Ballhandling – The Tar Heels are terrific in the open court, but often struggle against solid half court defenses, be it man-to-man or zones. One reason for the struggles is that UNC isn't a great ballhandling team. Manuel has difficulty getting by defenders using the dribble and often has the ball taken away from him. A solid interior passer, he makes questionable decisions on the perimeter. McCants beats defenders because he is quicker, but sometimes has trouble handling the ball for longer than a few bounces. He dribbles out in front a bit much and although he has a solid cross over and can go behind his back, the freshman still has plenty of work to do in this department. Noel will get better handling the ball as well.
Scoring droughts – The Heels have a tendency to go into funks, like Friday's 8:05 stretch when they managed only three points. These droughts are the result of getting out of control, too much dribbling, one-on-one stuff, and reduced movement without the ball. They also need to be more consistent meeting the ball and helping out trapped teammates.
Free throws – Carolina made just 18-31 free throws, including an inept 9-19 against Stanford.
Knock out blow – Because of the poor free throw shooting and the drought, UNC was unable to deliver the knock out blow to Stanford when it had the chance. Carolina had the Cardinal down 63-44 with just under 11 minutes left before the slump. They also didn't put away Kansas when they had a chance to. Same goes for Old Dominion. This may be nit picking, but it remains an issue until the Heels learn to close out teams.
The Tar Heels travel to Illinois to face the Illini on Tuesday night at 9:30 EST. The game, which is part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, will be televised by ESPN2.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.