By: Maurice K Dixon
It’s nice to know when some pick your team, but it makes me a little uneasy when all pick my team as the next one to cut down the last arrangement of nets. Honestly, I don’t have an issue with the experts’ opinions. I have issues with the increasing expectations because they add to the pressure, which if mishandled could evolve into shortcoming.
The North Carolina Tar Heels (college basketball’s outright No. 1 at the start of the season) or “my boys” – the group of talented ball players I have repeatedly referred to in first person (we) over the years – are expected to win it all. The analysts have all said it. The columnists have all written it. The magazines have all printed it on the front pages.
In various forms, the prediction has been made. But– the prediction does not stand alone. It can’t. So the expectations follow. Then the pressure mounts. And all of a sudden the growing hope of failure (from those who hate to see it come to pass) forms like dark clouds.
Strangely, former Kansas star Paul Pierce’s forearm tattoo summarizes my feelings on this situation. The drawing of a knife piercing a basketball on the star’s left forearm which he covers with an arm band reads, “My Gift. My Curse.” Those words fit perfectly because it is a gift for my team to be viewed as the most capable club to finish as the 2009 Champions, but it is also a curse if they lose since my misery will be someone’s pleasure.
Being highly favored is The Gift and The Curse.
The Heels have a load of experience.
Not one starter is a freshman or sophomore and Danny Green, who has replaced Marcus Ginyard in the lineup due to injury, Bobby Frasor and Will Graves are all upper classmen waiting for the signal to head in the direction of the scorer’s table. Since the one-and-done episode in the 2006 tournament, UNC has improved every year in March, advancing to the regional final the following campaign then the Final Four last season. Better yet, each team that has hoisted the trophy this decade consisted of third and fourth year players with the exceptions of Syracuse and Florida.
Carolina’s offense is deemed one of the most potent in the country.
Coach Roy Williams encourages his players to strike quickly (during the secondary break) even after the other team scores. One would think the Tar Heels dictated their play based on a 24-second clock as opposed to the 35-second one which most teams like to work into the single digits. Reigning Player of the Year and UNC’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Hansbrough guarantees 20 points, Wayne Ellington is not far behind, Deon Thompson has always been aggressive offensively but finally more accurate and Green is like an NBA Sixth Man, who attacks the basket without hesitation and shoots the three at a high percentage. Without a doubt, Carolina is built to run.
The 2001-02 version of the Maryland Terrapins and better yet the Florida Gators, the latest team to repeat, were picked to go all the way.
After squandering a large lead to Jason (Jay) Williams and eventual champion Duke in the 2001 Final Four, Juan Dixon, Lonnie Baxter and crew regrouped the following season, adding a title to coach Gary Williams’ sweat-drenched resume. The first time around, the Gators had to prove the capital “F” in Florida meant more than just “football success” then during the second journey, the focus shifted to turning away challengers instead of opponents. The Tar Heels can draw valuable lessons from both of these champions, who traveled along different roads but earned the same prize.
UNC’s depth is uncommon.
In addition to being distinctively different from its competition, Carolina is constructed like the 2005 National Title team, which had effective players – Marvin Williams, Melvin Scott, David Noel, Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller – coming off the bench. Despite the loss of Tyler Zeller for the season due to a wrist injury, coach Roy Williams has two other talented freshman, 6-foot-10 Ed Davis and point guard Larry Drew II, he can turn to and veterans Green, Frasor and Graves who have all earned his trust.
“Faith comes by hearing.”
The apostle Paul states this in Romans 10:17. Basically, listening plays an integral role in believing. The more the Heels hear they are the favorite, the more they adopt it, the more they truly start to believe it. And when action and execution are thrown into the equation, capturing the title can become a reality. The 2005 team heard the believers. As a longtime fan, I hope this one does too.
In everything lies a weakness. UNC’s defense? There you have it.
Carolina’s defense isn’t as bad as one guided by coach Mike D’Antoni, but it gets close at times. Despite reaching triple digits, the Tar Heels have a tendency to give up way too many points to far less-talented non-conference opponents (70 points to Chaminade, 73 to Evansville and 84 to Oral Roberts). Meanwhile, other top programs blowout their competition and hold them within the 50-60 point range which is a rarity for UNC. Or maybe, the Heels are in front by so much at the break or early in the second half that they lose focus defensively, which is a natural reaction when the game just seems so easy. Undoubtedly, Ginyard is the best perimeter defender, but if he gets beat the rotating defender is not consistently aware, Green is more of a weak side shot blocker, Thompson is foul prone and Hansbrough is not much more than a position defender, who never has been a shot blocker (0.5 bpg career). So, will we be able to get stops when we need them?
The 2005-06 Connecticut Huskies.
Stacked like a deck of cards and equally balanced, this version of the Huskies were found favorable by credible analysts, but failed to close the deal on the opportunity of winning two titles in three years. Connecticut had size (Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong), shooting (Rashad Anderson), athleticism (Rudy Gay), depth (Denham Brown, Jeff Adrien) and the main ingredient that goes a long way in the tournament: a talented point guard (Marcus Williams).
But this group had an issue with overconfidence and figured when they stepped onto the court with “UCONN” stitched across their chests, the other team was supposed to lie down. This attitude nearly cost Connecticut in the opening round when 16-seeded Albany built a double-digit lead but the Huskies rallied because they had talent and time, two necessities for any comeback. Connecticut couldn’t even fulfill the prophecy of a trip to the Final Four, losing in overtime two games later to an 11-seeded George Mason team which completed an unbelievable four-game run that ended one game shy of Monday night.
In order to avoid similar mannerisms and consequences, Carolina must equally grasp three intangibles: drive, focus and humility.
An unblemished six-game series against six opponents is the only way to glory.
On most occasions – well depending on the calendar – four wins in March and two in April will deliver a national title. This six-game winning streak sounds simple, but 65 teams realize such is not so when preparation time is reduced, video footage of certain opponents is limited and the sites are neutral. Plus, there always seems to be an unknown team from a mid-major conference that catches fire, then as a result is coined the “Cinderella” of the tournament. Who knows which bracket a mid-major will bust or which “Goliath” it will slay?
Once again, a 1-0 record must be achieved against six different opponents. All the slogans – “Win or Go Home”…”Do or Die” and so on – come into play. This is not a series like in the NBA (which can be very predictable at times) where game by game adjustments will lead a team further into the playoffs; therefore, major adjustments must take place during halftime and timeouts.
“Roy! …Call timeout!”
More than likely, I know he (Coach Williams) isn’t going to listen to me. In addition, common sense tells me that he can’t hear me because realistically I’m speaking to a television. But I proceed with the suggestion anyway because I’m a fan who understands how critical timeouts can be in the outcome of a game. Williams does too, but tends to be occasionally stubborn about calling a timeout when things obviously are not going in the team’s favor. He adopts a tactic from Phil Jackson’s coaching manual, waiting to see if the players can get themselves out of a jam like the former Chicago Bulls and current Los Angeles Lakers’ coach did then and does now.
Well, this method cost us two tournaments ago against Georgetown in the Regional Final. Ahead by 10 points with more than six minutes to go, Carolina went cold but the Hoyas couldn’t capitalize either, misfiring on all of their opportunities as well. At this point, I’m thinking “timeout” just like everyone else watching. Instead of calling for time to draw up a play and get everyone refocused, Williams opted to let things go as they were and wait for the mandatory under-four-minute timeout on a dead ball. Bad choice. Georgetown got some baskets to drop, convinced Williams into calling timeout (the one he wished to save for some reason), obtained the momentum, forced overtime and advanced to the Final Four.
Sometimes, the best coaching move is a simple timeout.
The Kansas Game.
After Derrick Rose and Memphis defeated UCLA in the first game of the Final Four, numerous storylines heading into Monday’s finale were eliminated: UNC vs. UCLA (two historic college basketball programs), Kevin Love vs. Hansbrough (White Americans at the forefront of a game often dominated by African Americans) and a West Coast offensive-minded team from the South vs. an East Coast defensive-minded team from the West.
But settling for a Memphis/Carolina matchup would do since both teams had next level talent and were offensively entertaining. Plus, many viewed eventual-champion Kansas as the weakest No. 1 seed of the four and gave the Jayhawks a slim chance of beating North Carolina. Kansas put a plan behind that chance which led to a shocking victory, whipping the Tar Heels by nearly 30 points in the first half and holding them off in the final 20 minutes en route to a meeting with the Tigers.
Yes, Kansas beating UNC was a surprise, but how it was done…even more stunning. The quickness of the Jayhawks was a problem, but the size Kansas possessed – Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and seldom-used Cole Aldrich – really knocked the Heels off kilter, neutralizing Hansbrough’s effectiveness and exploiting his weaknesses. Although Carolina clawed its way within reach (four points) midway through the second half, this game was a disturbing sight to see.
But it is a new season that unfortunately includes new challenges (0-2 start in the ACC), but also new solutions and better yet another chance to succeed for the Tar Heels. They have favor, which is one of the many keys to success. Yet, how long will things go in their favor?