Mark: Thank Heavens For Thursday

Twelve days have almost passed, and it's time to recharge the batteries. And no, I'm not talking to you folks at Duke Power.

I'm talking about what feels like the longest exam break in Carolina basketball history. Ten days ago, the Tar Heels were unable to thaw themselves out of a game-long defensive freeze and ended up with a disappointing loss to Kentucky. Since then, nothing. And if you're like me, the quiet has been a little awkward. After all, what are we to believe now about the state of Carolina basketball? Is this the fabulous, thrilling team that rattled off five good victories to start the season, or the tentative, stymied group that avoided back-to-back 20-point defeats by only the slimmest of margins?

If two double-digit defeats in four days didn't suck the juice out of the generators feeding excitement and optimism around the UNC program, two weeks to stew about it certainly drained things down to the reserves.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so in the absence of any hard news from Chapel Hill, the Tar Heel faithful (and a writer or two) have been left to while away the hours by interpreting smoke signals and debating the questions that have burned away since before the start of the regular season. And that's no good for anyone, really.

Of course there are always going to be questions about how a team handles an extended break. Indeed, it's surprising that Matt Doherty did not set up a game during this nearly completed stretch, especially after UNC's win streak during the 2000-2001 season was ended by such a break and Doherty promised never again to leave such a hole in the schedule. But what was most awful about that momentum-killing layoff was the result afterward. During the eight-day break itself in February 2001, folks had plenty to discuss and celebrate coming off a remarkable 18-game win streak. During the break that is about to end, however, the Illinois and Kentucky losses and the questions they raised have been left to smolder. Stoked by embers of last off-season's near conflagration in the program, things have felt even more troubled at times as a variety of worries about depth, size, team chemistry, and coaching reared their heads. One hopes that this is the worst of things about this year's break, and that a return to play later this week will quickly dispatch all these issues or non-issues. But that's the thing about a long layoff. You just never know.

Carolina fans need something--some measure of where things stand, some evidence on which to base the interpretations all are so eager to offer. So thank heavens for Thursday, when the Tar Heels will face off against Vermont in a game all hope and believe will give Carolina a chance to power back up and gather a little steam for the start of the ACC season and a second difficult stretch of nonconference matchups. It's only two days, folks. You've made it this far. You can hang on a little while longer.

Nevertheless, I know it's difficult to wait, because the questions persist. How much has the team improved over last season? How many wins will the rest of the season hold? Is Kentucky really seventeen points better than Carolina? Can the Heels make it through the ACC grind with Sean May and Jawad Williams as its main post options?

Of course I can't answer these questions any more definitively than you can. But at times like this, a little perspective can be useful. After a seven-game mini-season and a stretch that felt eerily like an off-season, it's worth pointing out that the same three questions that framed Carolina basketball going into the season are still with us. And while it's tempting to answer them all at once, or in light of a 5-2 record, perhaps it's worth remembering that they'll probably be with us until April.

To review:

1. Exactly how far can Carolina's freshmen carry the team? After UNC beat Kansas and Stanford on the way to the Preseason NIT title, it looked like there was no limit on the rise of the Tar Heels' stock. Raymond Felton was changing games with his ability to break down defenses. Sean May was bulling his way to the basket, consistently hitting from midrange, and holding his own on defense. Rashad McCants was stuffing the stat sheet, particularly in the scoring column. David Noel was giving some nice minutes off the bench. And together, all the newcomers appeared to make their older teammates better on both ends of the floor.

But whether it was because of tired legs, more difficult matchups, lack of focus, or bad luck with fouls, the freshmen had a tough time in two losses, particularly against Kentucky. Despite Felton's heroic efforts to lift the team late, the Tar Heel rookies struggled, especially with their defensive assignments. As the level of competition elevated, the transition game also disappeared, and baskets got harder to find in halfcourt sets the coaches have barely had time to teach. With the freshmen taking most of the shots, after shooting 46% and 49% in two games in New York, Carolina shot only 43% against Illinois. The Heels held Kansas to 40.7% from the floor. Kentucky shot an outrageous 60.3%.

So what happens now? The safest bet is that despite early rave reviews and recent disappointments, Carolina's freshmen are still freshmen--exciting and talented, but raw and still learning. This means the only way we're likely to know how far they can carry the team is by sitting back and watching the games unfold. That's how things looked on October 15, and that's more or less how they look now.

2. How will this team's chemistry develop as six talented newcomers try to mesh with three skilled sophomores and two steady seniors? Here it has looked like the answer was clear. Although some would have pointed to chemistry as the biggest potential obstacle for Carolina this year, the fact is that this team has mostly looked and sounded more united than any in recent memory. Maybe it's because with the exception of the more vocal McCants, the athletes on this squad are guys who like to let their games do the talking. All, McCants included, have looked unselfish on the court, and genuinely close to each other off it. Really, can you remember any team in the last six or seven years that huddled more frequently and more meaningfully than this young bunch? If you're a sentimentalist for the good old days of Carolina basketball, how nice has it been to see the old Dean Smith traditions upheld by a new generation?

For a team to be successful, however, it has to maintain that chemistry when times get tough. On this score, unfortunately, the jury remains out. The team that celebrated together in New York seemed to drift apart just a little in the late-game stages against Illinois and Kentucky. Some of it, of course, is that disappointment is always hard to swallow, and probably harder in groups. If you feel like you let your teammates down, do you want to slap high fives? No.

But the great teams--the truly great ones--find a way to do just that. Chemistry in successful times is easy. After a couple big losses on national television, it's a little harder. And besides, these guys are just getting to know each other. Do they have the rapport and trust it takes to weather a storm? We'll just have to wait and see.

3. How much have Matt Doherty and his assistants grown as a staff? More ink has been spilled over this question than just about any other. Here's what is fairly clear. Last year, Doherty and his staff struggled to keep the team motivated and confident as it tumbled through one loss after another. During the season and the months that followed, some players felt there was enough of a disconnect between what they needed as players and what the coaches and program offered that they left, and at least two others publicly spoke about frustrations with the way Doherty communicated with them.

As the season began, every remaining Tar Heel said they believed things had changed for the better. After five games, it appeared they had. Positive attitudes plus talent bred success. And it wasn't just about coach-player relationships. The strategy looked better, and the fundamentals were improving over time. Against Kansas, Doherty and his assistants crafted an excellent game plan to take the Jayhawks out of their rhythm, and the players executed to near perfection. It was a sight to behold.

But then the team hit some well-anticipated bumps in the road. Like it or not, this is where the questions remain.

If you watched the Illinois game on television, or you sat near the Carolina bench during the Kentucky game, you know that Doherty did what any coach would do if he felt his team was being embarrassed or putting forward a less than complete effort. He chewed some tail. The players didn't like it, but players aren't supposed to like it. That's the way things work.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work, just like everyone should be able to move on afterward and work on getting better. But the moving on is hard. It takes trust and confidence, and trust and confidence take time to build. It's a delicate business, and I dare say none of the armchair coaches out there envy Matt Doherty as he tries to find the path.

No one likes to lose. The key is, when losses come, can you continue to like each other in the midst of it? Last year, that didn't go so well. This year?

We'll start to find out on Thursday. Thank heavens.

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