Tommy: Turning Points?

February 5, 2003. Football Signing Day and Carolina at Duke. Could today be the watershed for both programs?

I'll start with football because quite frankly, discussing Carolina basketball these days is depressing. At this very moment, John Bunting and his hard-working staff are reaping the benefits of a job well done. No, not just well done, amazingly well done especially when you consider last season's results. 3-9. A home loss to your in-state rival. Said instate rival getting more local (and to a certain extent, national) media attention than any organized sports team ever. Said in-state rival beating a ‘name school' in a New Year's Day bowl game. Throw in other area schools having successful years and the collective back of the Carolina Football program was up against the wall.

Bunting and staff came out swinging and as the signed National Letters of Intent roll into the football offices, it's safe to say many long balls were hit over the last few days and months. (Check out IC's complete coverage throughout the day.) While it's easy to expect many of today's signees to become tomorrow's Carolina stars, we have to wait to see what happens on the field in the coming years to learn the true depth of today's importance. But should Bunting and staff translate the recruiting prowess to similar on-the-field success, Carolina football took a huge step forward today and should have no trouble making annual noise on a national level.

*****

I had the opportunity to cover my first basketball game of the season for Inside Carolina this past Sunday as the Heels called on the Demon Deacons from Wake Forest. First off, let me commend the Smith Center crowd as the atmosphere was as good as it's been in recent memory. Aside from the few hundred folks that made their way to the exits while the outcome was still in the balance, those in attendance made the Smith Center the type of environment this and future Carolina basketball teams need. As Raymond Felton stated postgame, the fans make a difference and are greatly appreciated by the players.

While there has been plenty of discussion on the game itself, two points worth discussing come to mind. Since most of the postgame talk has centered on Rashad McCants, I'll start there. Let me say this first, when discussing McCants, you must understand that there is not one person in or around the program that didn't understand the complex nature of his personality before he ever set foot on the Carolina campus. McCants has and always will be a guy that wears his emotions on his sleeve wherever and whenever. You get what you see and he makes no bones about it. Two, McCants' effort, passion and desire have never been remotely questioned by those that have followed him through the ranks of organized basketball.

Until now. With his benching during the Wake Forest game, Rashad's temperament and effort is the talk of the town, to say the least. Many believe Matt Doherty has to set an example and force McCants into becoming the player Carolina needs to be successful. Maybe Doherty has a point. He's the coach and he's certainly in a position to know the entire situation and take appropriate action.

But what I saw in the locker room after the Wake game was a star player broken down and exasperated with his situation on his "dream school's" basketball team. When McCants responded to a reporter's question about his expectations, he replied "I don't know what to expect anymore…" That statement alone is sad and disheartening, especially coming from a player from the North Carolina program, a program renowned for its ‘family' atmosphere.

Will McCants mature and learn to channel his great emotion? Certainly. Is it to be expected overnight? Surely not. Is that a problem? It shouldn't be. His emotion and fire are what makes him the player he is and when he's unable or not allowed to exude those traits, his game suffers. Subsequently, the Tar Heels suffer. While you can shout to the ends of the earth the impact of Sean May's injury and its effect, how Rashad McCants goes, so goes this Carolina team. That's what was expected in the preseason, and that's how it is now three and a half months into the season.

Breaking down players is a practice nearly every coach in American employs. What separates the great coaches from the failures is the ability to rebuild that player and mold him into a successful person, both on the court and off. Dean Smith's handling of Vince Carter comes vividly to mind for those wanting a recent example. Of course, Smith carried the weight of nearly 800 wins and a reputation as one of, if not the best coach of all-time to support his methods. Clearly Doherty carries neither at the moment and the struggle to mold Carolina into his image has been a mighty one. They say winning cures all ills. While that point is certainly accurate, a variation of the mantra is also true. Losing does not cause all ills. Where this season goes from here will say as much about Doherty as it will about the players.

So with the Blue Devils on tap for tonight, the Heels face a critical point in this season. While the current three game losing streak has all but axed realistic NCAA Tournament hopes, a win tonight over the Devils would go a long way in salving the wounds of the last month and a half. The Devils have chinks in the armor (that armor consisting of a 178-22 record over the past five and a half years - an astonishing mark) this season as Florida State recently exposed.

To win, the Heels must not fall into the three-point shootout trap Duke likes to lure its opponents into. The Heels can matchup with the Dukies but stand no chance in an outside shooting contest. It will be interesting to watch it all unfold and see what plan the staff utilizes against the youthful and vulnerable Blue Devils. The future depends on it.

*****

During the game, the students on the risers fed the Wake Forest players a steady diet of insults, many of the garden variety, a few with colorful language and none of the out of the way type. Doherty was also the target of several shouts, also the garden variety "What are you thinking, Coach!?" type comments.

Those directed at Doherty didn't last long as a Smith Center usher, either taking it upon himself or at the behest of someone within the program, told a student guilty of throwing a verbal dart the coach's way to refrain from criticizing the coach or "you are out of here." No asking that the students refrain from cursing, just quit questioning the coach or "you are out of here."

Either way, a simply stunning exchange.

*****

While debating the why's and how's of our favorite teams, Saturday's events high over Texas and the building events in the Middle East should serve as a blunt reminder that sports is a way to escape the reality of the real world, and we should consider them as such. Pulling for your team and being a fan is certainly a favorite pastime nearly everyone enjoys. But in a day and age in which those ‘fans' often leap overboard and cross the boundaries of decency both at the sporting event and around the modern day water coolers (aka Internet message boards), remember that while one should never apologize for supporting "their team" or "their favorite player," everyone needs to realize that in the end, it's just a game played by our young people and games are meant to be fun.


Have a question, comment or beef? Email Tommy at carolina93@nc.rr.com.


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