Christmas weekend was supposed to mark Carolina's triumphant return to the scene of the program's reemergence. Having soundly beaten Florida State on the road, the Heels were going to march on Manhattan, knock off two very beatable teams, and surge into the New Year on a nice little winning streak. Doesn't UNC own the Garden?
I've always been suspicious of New York, and suffice to say that the events of last weekend didn't help matters. It's a seductive place--if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, right? But just when you think you've got the city under your thumb, you get mugged in Penn Station.
Friday's disaster against Iona didn't feel like a mugging. It felt like an all-out assault with a deadly weapon. How to wrap your head around the string of bad luck that led to an upset win by the Gaels and left the Tar Heels stumbling in the dark through a back alley in Hell's Kitchen? Imagine waking up as Matt Doherty on Saturday morning. In 48 hours, you've just completed a painfully long bus ride from Chapel Hill to New York, retrieved half your team from remote airports and taxicabs, suspended one of your top backups, found out one of your starters is laid out by dry heaves, discovered your top scorer has a bum finger on his shooting hand, lost your only true post player and top rebounder for most of the season, and lost to a team you should have clobbered by 20. Happy stinking holidays.
But then you're proud, because your guys pull it together and scratch out a win over St. John's. Now look, the Red Storm are not the powerhouse they were a few years ago, and they are going to lose a fair number of games once Big East play begins. And the stands at Madison Square Garden were just about completely empty as New Yorkers watched the Giants suck up most of the sports magic left in the Big Apple, thus erasing any home court advantage for the Johnnies. But a win is a win, especially when you and your charges are still in shock from the night before, when you've equalled your total number of victories last season, and when you've topped a second team from one of the nation's power conferences. I don't care what anyone else says--when Matt Doherty called the Saturday victory as big as wins against Kansas and Stanford, I agree 100 percent.
But here's why: after the weekend, the Tar Heels appear in danger of being a very average basketball team.
Note carefully that I did not say Carolina has very average players. Nothing has changed the extraordinary talent of Raymond Felton or Rashad McCants, nor the emerging leadership and skill of Jawad Williams, nor the potential of the Tar Heels' other freshmen and sophomores. But as a team that must face other teams the rest of the season, it certainly looks right now like the Heels are no better and probably weaker on paper than five or six other squads in the ACC. With so much parity across the NCAA this season, that is a recipe for bubble team at best.
The good news remains that games aren't played on paper, and teams are living animals with the ability to adapt, grow, and thrive in ever changing environments. Before throwing up hands in despair, it would be wise to take inventory of current talent and see great possibilities, particularly as the Heels get their feet back under them in the coming weeks. This team most certainly does have chemistry, and they will need it as they pull together in the face of May's injury. Then, if Byron Sanders and Damion Grant round into form as they receive increased attention as Carolina's only inside options, it's still possible to imagine an NCAA tournament berth awaits in March.
But as UNC prepares for another tough road test at Miami, the obstacles loom large. Right now, without Sean May, the Tar Heels are a team without any reliable interior game. Start with the problems this causes on defense. Even with May, teams like Illinois and Kentucky demonstrated Carolina is often unable to prevent high-percentage shots within 8 feet. Even Iona exploited this problem as it found plenty of looks near the basket in the second half. Without a stopper in the middle, it's also more difficult to overplay and gamble on the perimeter. Without that kind of defensive pressure, steals get hard to come by, and without steals, the transition game stalls. Without a reliable transition game, Carolina must work its way through a halfcourt offensive scheme which, again, lacks an inside threat to take pressure off slashing guards and three-point shooters. It has been painful, frankly, to watch Sanders and Grant struggle to finish around the basket.
This is only the beginning. Right now, the Tar Heels appear to be a team with only one reliable scorer--McCants--who is able to create his own shot. Felton, who left fans eagerly anticipating the return of a scoring point guard to the Carolina backcourt, has shown plenty of sizzle but little pop as he hunts his three-point range and tries to penetrate for looks up close. Williams, who played a tremendous all-around game against St. John's, has the three-point range and that nice turnaround jumper, but only when they are falling, and only when someone can get him a decent look. Neither has happened on a consistent basis. Without May, it will also get easier for teams to close off entry passes to Williams. Meanwhile, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and David Noel have yet to show they can score on a consistent basis. Are the Heels going to turn into a team that will consistently win games in the 50s and 60s? Not likely. So someone--or more likely several someones--need to step up.
Finally, when there are questions about your own team, it gets mighty difficult to concentrate on preparations for your opponent. And it just doesn't get any easier in the coming weeks. Miami is erratic but athletic and physical--on the road, it feels like a game that easily could go either way. Then Davidson comes to town, and although the Heels have plenty of payback to motivate them, the fact is that the Wildcats have enough scoring, defensive toughness, and overall discipline to beat Carolina, even with Sean May healthy. Virginia at Charlottesville follows, with a healthy Travis Watson. Then Clemson. Then Connecticut, a bona fide top 10 team. Then Maryland. And it just keeps going from there.
It's never easy when you lose a top player, but it's much harder for a team with so little margin for error, and for a team that is trying to emerge from under the weight and anxieties of tradition in transition, it is harder still. But as the new year begins with so little certainty, there seems to be at least one thing worth holding on to: if the Tar Heels can shake off this major setback and find 10 wins in the remaining schedule, they will be as deserving as any in UNC basketball history of a berth in the NCAA tournament. And that, undoubtedly, would be a good end to what is shaping up as a very tumultuous year.
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