Once again, it's Stanford-North Carolina. A series that has brought nothing but disappointment and heartache to Cardinal fans through the years gets renewed with yet another twist. This edition pits the two Cinderella squads in the preseason NIT that were supposed to play in the untelevised consolation game - the two squads that probably weren't even supposed to make it to the Big Apple in the first place. Both unranked, but 4-0 and surprising pundits across the nation with the play of their respective young squads. Stanford is in Madison Square Garden for this grand finale despite losing two All-American players early to the draft, and despite losing their starting point guard to injury this preseason. The Card has finally been confronted with the situation that Duke, Arizona, Kansas and Carolina face every couple of years - playing undermanned without their full complement of scholarship players, and without the depth of senior leadership that past recruiting classes should have dictated. UNC has seen rocky times of unprecedented proportions, suffering an unthinkable 8-20 season last year. Their roster has seen departures and recruiting gaffes that leaves them a line-up led by six freshmen and three sophomores... plus a coach villified and ridiculed for undermining a proud and prolific powerhouse.
But here they are, meeting in the NIT final game. Both teams are filled with unmatched confidence, and a belief in themselves that is building each and every day. They have nothing to lose, and a lot of glory to be gained with this win. The spread in Vegas on this game calls Stanford a very thin one-point favorite, and truly there is no obvious logic or matchup that points to either team's clear advantage. This will be an interesting game to watch, with neither team or coaching staff quite yet sure what their boys will bring to the Garden this night...
Do not be fooled by the class designations for this starting five - not for a second. The three starting freshmen were ranked in the top 10 last year in the nation's high school senior class by Dave Telep of The Insiders Hoops, and the two starting sophomores were ranked in their respective class in the top 30 in the country. And with how intense and developed AAU basketball has become these days, the kids who come to college as freshmen are far more ready to play than the freshmen of even five or ten years ago. They have played so much basketball at such a high level against other top kids that they step into college with few adjustments to make. This Carolina starting five is the pinnacle collection of this phenomenon, and the splash they are making this preseason is a strong testament to this trend...
As a group, this starting five has incredible athleticism that may be only matched on Stanford's schedule this year by Arizona, and truthfully I think this Carolina five is probably more athletic. They have no less size inside than what Stanford has been seeing in its other preseason games this year, but every player for Carolina plays with a handle and quickness that allows them to operate at all spots on the floor. In a sense UNC plays with four guards on the floor, given that McCants plays like a rangy and quick shooting guard and Williams plays like a Josh Childress wing.
Raymond Felton was the #2 player in the country out of high school to not go to the NBA, and he is getting it done in leading this team. Without any viable upperclass point guard on this roster, Felton runs the show with great maturity and ability. He doesn't look to shoot much, but he can drive and create with the best of them. Watch for him to shoot when he can curl around screens, but most other times set up his teammates. Active and aggressive defensive player who can cause those turnovers that lead to big Carolina transition breaks.
Jackie Manuel is almost lost in the shuffle of this team's talent, but he would be a young star on any other team in the country. He is is strong, long and athletic and makes a lot of plays on both ends of the floor even when not scoring. With the offensive abilities of the rest of the starting five, his contributions are biggest on the defensive end right now. If you are wondering whether Manuel just hasn't taken three-point shots yet this year, know that he has actually chucked up nine shots beyond the arc through four games, yet to hit a single one. Murphy's Law almost certainly tells us that he will drain his first trey of the year against the Card...
Rashad McCants is the poster child for this breakout young team, leading their explosive offensive attack. His 22.0 ppg is not a fluke, including 25 points the other night in the dominating upset of Kansas. And though he can shoot the ball from the outside, it is his gliding and slashing with the ball off the dribble that will beat you. He plays big and can man the small forward with his active arms and leaping, though on a balanced roster I think you would see him play at the off-guard. Very very dangerous, and one helluva matchup for Josh Childress.
Jawad Williams again would play one spot smaller on the floor if Carolina had the frontcourt they wish they could have recruited the past few years, but he is a dangerous matchup on the perimeter for power forwards. Good handle and shooting range that Justin Davis might struggle against in a man defense. This zone could be an important factor in keeping Williams from getting open looks or a chance to drive to the basket. Big challenge is to get a body on him and use strength to neutralize his rebounding and second-chance looks.
Sean May is averaging 2.3 blocks per game and a head-shaking 3.3 steals per game, to go with his stellar stats above. The kid is an incredible talent, with a handle and shooting range that seems impossible with his oversized frame. He can bring the ball up the floor or handle it on the perimeter, including making passes to his cutting teammates. Watching him and Rob Little bang down low could be a lot of fun, though May's active hands will probably cause a disturbing number of turnovers down low.
This is not a deep team, largely playing a six-man rotation. Melvin Scott is the one truly significant reserve, and he can be dangerous. Could be listed as a combo guard, since he can spell either Felton or Manuel, though he really plays like a shooting guard. He loves to shoot, and looks to score whenever he touches the ball. If Felton has to leave the game and Scott play the point, this Carolina team changes. Though with Felton and Scott both in the game, you have a heck of a backcourt with which to contend. Scott can be active defensively (five steals verus Kansas), and is a quick and smooth operator when he has the ball.
Will Johnson is the one player who can meaningfully contribute to this team that is not a freshman or sophomore. Unlike the rest of the lineup, he plays at his size like a true forward. He will play inside or outside, and moves well without the ball. Not much of a threat to do anything to you off the dribble, though. When you are busy chasing the rest of the athletic players on the floor and you lose Johnson, that is when he gets the ball and has the potential to hurt you.
David Noel can spell McCants, but you lose a lot when you make this switch. He is a football player and was primarily recruited for football by schools before he decided to walk-on at Carolina to play hoops, which is his true love. Does not have the advanced savvy and feel for the game like his freshman classmates, but he is a good athlete who will get better and better. At this level of basketball, you don't ever want to play off anyone, but Noel might be the one guy in this team's top eight that I would sag away from.
You know the story. Carolina has beaten Stanford all nine times the two teams have matched up in their histories. The last matchup was a particularly poignant loss, when the Cardinal a gutwrenching 60-53 loss in the second round of the 2000 NCAA tournament. That year saw Stanford earn their first ever #1 seed in the Big Dance, while the Tar Heels sneaked into the tournament with a #8 seed and an incredibly disappointing season. But the powderkeg ACC power still had a host of McDonalds All-American talent that erupted in that tourney, running all the way to the Final Four.
Just one year prior, Stanford and Carolina met in the final of the preseason NIT and played an absolute stinker of a game, which UNC won late in the second half. Three years before that, Stanford and North Carolina met in a rinky-dink preseason "Tournament of Champions" held in Charlotte and sponsored by some local grocery store magnate. Of the three losses to the Tar Heels in the last decade, this one was the worst whipping. UNC led by as much as 30 points in the 1995 game that was a humbling experience for a then-rising Stanford program.
But it is that NCAA tournament loss that is the most meaningful to this current Stanford squad. The freshman class that year included Julius Barnes, Justin Davis and Joe Kirchofer. They sat dejected in their locker room after their first crushing season-ending loss, wondering "what if?"...
This is a program that has been more than a monkey on Stanford's back... more than an albatross around Mike Montgomery's neck. North Carolina has been a 500-pound simian, replete with the Ebola virus. Stanford also competes with the Tar Heels for some national recruits. This would be a very sweet win for this program, and a national statement that would mean a lot to a country that has Carolina blue ingrained into their ESPN-indoctrinated psyches. Make no mistake, this would be a big one...
North Carolina runs a simple yet very effective offense that suits the raw skills but undeveloped knowledge of offensive sets and plays. What they love to do is line up all five players out at the top of the three-point line, and run the offense from there. If the defense follows you, you can make quick cuts for back-door looks, or take defenders off the dribble without the fear of defensive help collapsing. What Carolina has working for them is top athleticism and quickness that can beat more veteran or skilled defenders, and that advantage is maximized in the open space they get from this set.
The defining question is how will this unusual offense react to this unusual Stanford 1-1-3 zone defense. Against Kansas, the Tar Heels faced a man-to-man defense that drew all defenders to the top of the perimeter, giving them huge chunks of hardwood for their cuts. Now what will happen when the back three of the 1-1-3 zone is sitting back along the baseline to protect the basket. Stanford's defense rotates pressure out to the basketball while leaving protection underneath that was never present in the Jayhawks' defense. I imagine that UNC's athletic gifts will find a way to create and score even when taken out of this offense, but I just don't see them getting the kinds of looks they got against Kansas. In fact, I see the potential for them to get incredibly frustrated, with a big number of turnovers and shots blocked. If and when Stanford comes out of the zone, though, and goes to a man defense, there could be trouble.
As a team, Carolina has turned the ball over 64 times this year, versus their 61 assists. And when you get past point guard Raymond Felton (2.2 A/TO ratio), this team becomes a turnover machine (0.6 A/TO). By comparison Stanford XXXX. This sets up in a way similar to how I thought the Boston University game might have gone for the Cardinal, when I thought the 1-1-3 zone was going to be first used. You take a team that is turnover prone like this and force them to spend more time dribbling and passing against perimeter pressure, and you should be able to force a good number of turnovers. Even the freshman point guard Felton can be turnover prone, by the way, logging seven mishaps in the Rutgers game... which not coincidentally was the toughest game for the Tar Heels this year, trailing at one point by double digits.
So not only do we need to watch how Carolina shoots the ball against this zone, but also how do they handle the ball. Their passes have been beautiful looking passes, but they again come in open space off cuts to the basket. When Stanford's defense is present everywhere they move the ball, will they continue to try to make tough passes? Stanford has actually done a good job generating turnovers with this defense, even when teams have known that it is coming.
An equally important question is how will Stanford protect the ball against this opportunistic and aggressive UNC defense. Carolina plays little in the way of junk defenses, instead resting again on the natural abilities of these young athletes to make plays. If Stanford is not completely crips with their passes, UNC will pick the ball off and race the other way for uncontested layups and dunks. If Stanford's big men (read Justin Davis and Rob Little) don't keep the ball high in the low post, it will get stripped. If Josh Childress tries to penetrate with a loose handle, a whole host of Carolina reaching hands will slap the ball away. The Card have to be very smart with the ball in order to get their chances to score.
If Stanford turns the ball over, they could actually feed a big Carolina run and get taken out of this game. But if they protect the ball, I think the offense has good chances to score against this young defense. This team looks like one where Julius Barnes and Matt Lottich can feed the ball into the post with lob passes. This looks like a team where ball movement and screens could open up a good number of clean looks from the perimeter. Stanford should have chances to score if they hold on to the ball and play smart.
One final X-factor is the rebounding game. On the whole, this Carolina lineup is a little on the small side, but they have a lot of leapers as well as the quickness and aggressiveness to get those loose ball rebounds. Stanford does not have the size they are accustomed to, though they have also rebounded smartly and aggressively in this young season. The numbers would indicate that the Cardinal should have a rebounding edge here, but I say it's a tough call. Whoever can get the prized offensive boards in this game will get the second chances that can break the other team's collective back.
I know that this is a very talented and scary athletic Carolina team, but the matchups look like they should give a small margin in favor of the Stanford Cardinal. If the zone works like I think it can, and Carolina (read: Matt Doherty) doesn't have an imaginative answer, there is the potential for the Card to (for once) lead a good deal of this game. If fouls are called and the benches have to come into play, particularly at the wing and frontcourt, Stanford could actually pull away. I know, that seems like a crazy thought, but I think it's possible. The greatest danger for Stanford is if their shooting goes cold, but even an average shooting night could give a win in this game. We smoke these guys! 71-60.
Update: the line has moved swiftly, and now currently shows UNC as a 2 to 2.5 point favorite in Vegas...