Mark: Don't Forget the Sophomores

For those of you who have been wondering, yes, it's lovely here under the rock I occasionally crawl out from under to write about the Tar Heels. In fact, after I scurried out to eat a little turkey and watch Carolina thoroughly dismantle Stanford on Friday en route to the Preseason NIT championship, I went right back under that rock, far away from internet message boards and email, where I was certain you fine folks would be heaping scorn on my basketball prediction skills.

Under the rock, I keep a dusty copy of Ima Hack's classic book, "How to Be a Sportswriter (Without Sticking Your Foot in Your Mouth)." The problem is, it's a little dark under the rock. If I'd had enough light to consult my trusty manual, I would have seen the reference on page 137 to avoiding predictions at all costs. Fact is, people aren't all that impressed when you're right, and you really catch hell when you're wrong.

Seriously though, when I re-emerged from my self-imposed email exile on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised at how gentle you loyal readers were. I did have the one particularly friendly message with the subject line, "UNC rules, you suck." But mostly there was just some good-natured ribbing about last week's column and my suggestion that Carolina was in for an old-fashioned tail whupping Wednesday against Kansas. Who knew the Tar Heels would be the whuppers and the Jayhawks the whuppees? Not me, that's for sure.

So I was wrong. There are times when that isn't so bad. And I'll tell you my hypothesis. I think the hate mail was kept to a minimum this weekend because most folks were just as surprised as I was that November ended with the Tar Heels 5-0 and quickly catapaulted back into the top 15 in the national polls. Because come on, while it's been impossible to miss the infusion of talent and heart into this basketball team, and while plenty of people had hoped and dreamed the talent would gel over time into something special, it would have been fairly hard to predict that would happen over one short month.

But now we know. Freshmen aren't freshmen any more. It's shown to be true in Chapel Hill, but it's also looking true nationwide. With so few top players sticking around for their senior or even junior seasons anymore, and with all the top prep athletes honing their skills against excellent competition in year-round tournaments and camps, the college game has fundamentally changed. Experience still counts for something, to be sure, but it doesn't count as much, and eighteen-year-olds can and will increasingly make all the difference for many teams--even the best programs in the nation.

If you love the Tar Heels, you should have been saying a word of thanks last week that Matt Doherty and his staff can recruit top talent. And more importantly, thank goodness the coaches have done what it takes to blend this new talent with Carolina's returning players with such phenomenal early success. Sean May, Raymond Felton, and Rashad McCants have been nothing other than remarkable talents. But suddenly Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott are playing like top talent as well, meshing quickly with their new teammates and filling their roles to a "T." The three freshmen stars are impressive, but the change in the sophomores is even more so.

Last year Williams drifted on the perimeter, confused on defense and unable to find good looks on offense. Now he is aggressively finding holes in opposing defenses, using a smooth, steady jumper from 10 feet and out to create matchup problems against bigger power forwards. He is showing much better patience, recognizing where lanes to the basket are bottled up and finding the open man. No one will confuse him with a beast on the blocks, but he is also fighting better on the offensive glass, all this while using his height, superior quickness, and good positioning to front opponents on the defensive end. Williams is quickly becoming a complete basketball player--the glue of the team, able to fill in just about anything that's needed on a given night.

Manuel and Scott have been similarly resurgent. Although Manuel is still a shaky ballhandler, and there are times when his jump shot looks just plain ugly, he has embraced the mantle of defensive stopper. With two blocks and four steals over two games in New York, Manuel's stat line doesn't really reflect the level of his play. The more impressive things--his ability to clog lanes and knock away passes with his long reach--don't show up in the box score. But if they tracked assists on steals or turnovers caused, you can be sure Jackie would be among the NCAA leaders.

Scott, meanwhile, is providing cool, steady play off the bench. Against Kansas and Stanford, the team benefitted greatly from his experience playing the point last year, as Scott subbed for Felton on several occasions and allowed the Tar Heels to keep the threat of a scoring point guard on the floor. He lacks blow-by speed, but he's developed a nice little dribble move to lose the defender, pull back, and knock down the open look. He is still working on his pull-up jumper, but when that shot comes consistently, Carolina will be truly loaded at shooting guard. But with Scott, the offense hasn't been in question--it's been the defense. And in New York, he took the wraps off that part of his game, with five first half steals against Kansas and seven overall for the two days.

All in all, it was a very promising tournament for two players some have wished could be merged into one total package. How much better it will be if both players can start showing a complete game in the days ahead. There are signs this is happening.

The Tar Heels have stellar freshmen who have quickly grown out of the annoying "diaper dandy" label. But don't forget the sophomores, who have quietly emerged as an impressive trio of skilled players who can provide experience and leadership as the grind of Carolina's season wears on.


*While it's fine--probably even good--for Matt Doherty to downplay the importance of Carolina's return to the national rankings, the Tar Heels' rapid rise is extremely valuable, not only for restoring fan confidence but also for getting attention of potential late-breaking recruits in the class of 2003. It cannot hurt to have every major media outlet on television and in print proclaiming that UNC is back where it belongs. But of course now the Tar Heels need to stay there and continue to improve. By the way, I wouldn't quarrel with Carolina's #12 ranking in the AP poll, or even with the #14 ranking in the coaches' poll. But it does seem a little perplexing that Kansas remains above UNC in the coaches' rankings.

*One more brief comment on the rankings: if they were truly an accurate reflection of where teams are right now--and we all know they aren't--I don't see how you can keep a team like Georgia Tech out of the top 25. Their early strength of schedule can't rival Carolina's, but whose can? And the Yellow Jackets look scary good, with impressive size and quickness, good shooting, and Paul Hewitt's signature defense driving the team. Forget about the ACC having a down year. If the league keeps up its stellar non-conference play, six bids to the NCAA seem very much within reach.

*It's becoming clear that UNC's blowout victory over Penn State in the season opener will count for absolutely nothing when the NCAA tournament committee tallies quality wins in late February and early March. The Nittany Lions followed up the loss to Carolina with two very ugly losses to Penn and Yale. But wins over Rutgers, Kansas, and Stanford already look very, very big for Carolina's RPI ranking. Kansas has struggled early, but will likely regain form, provided Kirk Hinrich's back heals. Rutgers' defense continues to look very tough and should propel the Scarlet Knights to a good non-conference record, and with Pac-10 teams like UCLA stumbling early, Stanford is poised to return to its perennial place near the top of that conference. The fact that Carolina has opened 5-0 is cause for celebration on its own terms, but the quality of competition makes the start exponentially more impressive.

*It was hard to miss the significant minutes freshman David Noel logged against Kansas and Stanford. Although some scoffed at his ability to hold down time at power forward (this writer included), the fact is, Noel is proving doubters wrong. He more than held his own against taller, bigger players, suggesting that his years of football have indeed provided much-needed toughness to grind it out under the basket. Now Doherty and Noel's teammates need to find him some good looks in the offense. If Noel's scoring ability can be rekindled--remember his impressive play in the Blue-White scrimmage?--Carolina will have a very versatile seven-man rotation going into the ACC.

*Congrats to Rashad McCants for winning ACC player of the week honors on top of receiving the MVP award from the Preseason NIT. But it's a shame such awards always honor individual play. McCants was a scoring machine in New York and played pretty good defense, but Carolina's wins were quintessential team victories, and it's too bad one player gets singled out for praise afterward.

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