Tommy: The Greatest Challenge

This season, one thing is for certain – this Carolina basketball team has more talent than any Tar Heel team since 1998 and possibly beyond. Not since Vince and Antawn roamed the floor have the Heels played a more flashy exciting style that most basketball observers have come to enjoy as the sport has evolved. A point guard finishing fast breaks with big dunks. A big man shooting perimeter shots. Swingmen that can do it all. This is Carolina Basketball circa 02-03.

Unfortunately, two big losses, even when they come at the hands of name schools, have dampened much of the enthusiasm created by the five-game win streak to open the season.

Illinois and Kentucky exposed what will be Carolina's metaphorical Achilles Heel throughout the season. Interior defense against teams with more than one athletic big man will be a problem this year that will fester and burn until the end.

As I discussed in my November 20th column (link), defense and depth will cause problems for the Tar Heels and in the Illinois and Kentucky games, those two aspects are the prime reasons for the defeats.

With an undersized team, pressure defense is a must. If the undersized team allows its opponent to settle into half court sets, things go south in a hurry. Good big guys will beat good little guys the overwhelming majority of the time. As good as Sean May is, and I'll admit I sit in awe of his skills as just an 18-year-old freshman, he simply cannot carry the inside burden alone – especially on the defensive end.

That said, in the season's first five games, the fresh legged perimeter players were able to double down to help May out if necessary and still get back to defend the three point shot. Oftentimes, Carolina's defense clogged the passing lanes preventing opponents from even challenging May inside. The result was Carolina wins over good teams.

Fresh legged or not, the undersized Heels couldn't withstand the interior punch of Illinois and Kentucky. Both teams forced the ball inside during crunch time and when the Heels failed to collapse, scored easily or went to the free throw line. When the Heels did collapse, both teams found the open shooters and shot the Heels out of the building. As the Heels tired, the games became one sided.

The Illini and Wildcats were tough matchups for the Heels especially with Carolina not playing lights out basketball. Problem is, more than a few ACC teams are built the same troubling way as those Big Ten and SEC heavyweights.

So, what to do?

Let's play the "Easiest Job in America – The Armchair Coach!"

For one, Byron Sanders and Damion Grant need bigger roles on the floor. No, I have no idea how these two look in practice when the public eyes can't see and the playing time decisions are made. But I do know that both of them were thought highly enough of to have been given a scholarship to play at THE best basketball program in the sport. And I do know that if they are considered ‘not ready' to play at this level, riding the pine will only prolong that ‘not ready' period deep into this season and the next. (And unless the staff signs a big man sometime soon, we'll be discussing the same problem next season.)

If nothing else, playing Sanders and Grant any amount of time gives May and Jawad Williams a much needed break from banging against the heavies of the game. David Noel has provided help inside as well, but his talent is seriously curbed when he's forced to guard players much taller and bigger in the paint. Personally, I believe both Sanders and Grant can contribute and must for the Heels to come close to the exploded expectations of late November.

Second and last, Coach Matt Doherty and staff must remain on an even keel all year. Win or lose, the young Tar Heel players need stability from the top. The fans will burn hot and cold. They'll insist the Heels can win the National Championship one day and declare the Heels won't win ten games the next. The coaching staff must be the rock especially to the freshmen, most of whom could likely count the number of losses they've be a part of with ease.

Extracting positives from the sands of defeat is not something youngsters normally do. It is the greatest challenge in sports because defeats are inevitable. Coaching staffs that have mastered the challenge are the envy of the sports world. Those that haven't get plenty of practice trying to learn how.

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