Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As Cool as the Other Side of the Pillow

Remember back when Sportscenter was truly Sportscenter, doing nothing but showing awesome highlights for an hour instead of putting talking heads on to debate the most inane topics over and over again? I do, and that's when Sportscenter was the shit. Since then, it's become nearly impossible to watch a Sportscenter in its entirety because the highlights are few and far between, instead opting for talk, talk and more talk. Give me my highlights back!

Back then, not only were the highlights plentiful, but the anchors were awesome: Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Craig Kilborn, Charley Steiner and, yes, Stuart Scott. Since those early years, as ESPN and Sportscenter have deteriorated, so too has Scott. Now, he seems like an aging man who is trying way too hard to be funny and hip and relate to the youth, instead of just being himself. But back in the heyday of Sportscenter, Scott was the man, and he had the greatest catch phrase of all time: as cool as the other side of the pillow.

I bring this all up because watching North Carolina defeat Michigan State again last night — 89-82 —  and watching Ed Davis play for a year-plus now, UNC alum Stuart Scott's catch phrase describes the sophomore power forward's game to a tee. Ed Davis simply is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Last night, seemingly without trying, Davis led all scorers with 22 points on a ridiculously efficient 8-10 from the floor and nabbed 6 rebounds … and he hit some clutch free throws down the stretch. The 6-10 super sophomore didn't even look like he broke a sweat, but make no mistake, he was putting in work. It's just the way he plays makes it look as though he's not even trying. That's how scary talented this kid is. He can dominate a game from start to finish and make it look like a walk in the park. His smooth stroke, silky touch, intimidating length — they all go hand in hand with a cool demeanor that makes it seem as though Davis is just gliding out there.

In a way, he is. Davis isn't a demanding presence, an aggressive, assertive beast. He's more of a relaxed superstar, never pressing the issue, happy to share the spotlight on a roster full of super talents. Perhaps that will come in time. After all, he's only 20 years old and coming off a season where he was the fourth or fifth option behind the likes of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. If he develops into a more domineering presence this season and beyond, his potential is limitless. As Dickie V. put it last night, he may not even realize how good he can be, and at times he can be a little too passive. My guess is he will assert himself in time. But in the meantime, we should all appreciate what he's doing right now and just how easy he's making it all look.

Against an admittedly undersized Michigan State squad last night, Davis was the best player on the floor, no question about it. He dominated both ends of the floor, altering shots on defense and creating offense with his insane efficiency down low and the opportunities he opened up on the perimeter. The Tar Heels shot the lights out of the basketball in large part due to the attention the Spartans had to pay to Davis and his fellow mates on the block. UNC finished the game shooting 57.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three.

The thing that makes Davis so fun to watch is how unselfish he is. For all the calls for him to be more aggressive, perhaps that isn't what the team actually needs right now. The Tar Heels run 12 players deep. Everyone who takes the court can score. Davis is the right kind of superstar to fit such a team. He's content to let his teammates get their shots, get their buckets. But when push comes to shove, when crunch time rolls around, Davis isn't shy to take over, which is exactly what he did last night. When Michigan State made their push and turned a 16-point halftime deficit into a tight contest late, Davis made sure his Tar Heels wouldn't let the game get away at home.

Not that Davis had to this all on his own. Make no mistake about it, this North Carolina team is nowhere near as good as last season's squad. How could it be? The Tar Heels lost their top four players to the NBA, four of the best players in the nation. They're young and for the most part inexperienced. But as Vitale said last night, this isn't the UNC squad that followed up the 2005 championship with a cupboard that was relatively bare. Far from it. This team has talent lining up next to talent. Sure, the guard play isn't the best the school's seen, but as the season wears on, the likes of Larry Drew II and Dexter Strickland look more and more comfortable, and less and less like liabilities.

Strickland and especially Drew were impressive last night, looking far better and more confident than they had in Madison Square Garden against the likes of Syracuse. Drew was poised and lethal with his shot all night. Next to Davis, he may have been the best player for the Tar Heels last night — no small feat considering he played much of the game matched up against reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas. The biggest thing for Drew was how well he ran the team and took what was there. He finished with 6 assists, and more impressively, he consistently nailed his jumper, going 6-7 from the field for 18 points and 5-6 from the line. His foul shooting in final minutes iced the game for Carolina, when his teammates were struggling from the line.

Strickland also had a breakout game. For the first time in this young season, the freshman looked confident and was attacking the defense. He looked significantly faster with the ball in his hands than he had in previous games, and his confidence grew leaps and bounds in that game. In 14 impact minutes, he went 3-5 from the field and 2-3 from beyond for 9 points, and he even got some big-time minutes at the end of the game, which will no doubt serve him well down the road. He did miss three of his four free throws though, which was maddening considering he's supposed to be a pretty good shooter. But he was a pleasant surprise last night and played really well, as did his fellow freshman.

The star recruit for the Tar Heels was John Henson, the wiry 6'10 forward. His transition to the college game has clearly shown he has some work to do, most notably a need to get bigger and stronger. His slight frame makes it difficult for him to bang inside at the moment. But his freakish athleticism was on display on two insane blocks thanks to his length and a bad-ass putback slam. His minutes aren't that of a super-recruit just yet, but the potential dripping from this kid is off the charts. Add in the steady play of the Wear twins, who both do a little bit of everything, and this young front line will give teams fits all season long. They sure did last night.

And that's without even mentioning Deon Thompson, the senior who is leading UNC is scoring and got the Heels going last night with a very fast, very impressive start. UNC was able to jump out to a 19-point lead in the first half mainly due to Thompson, who was killing anyone Tom Izzo put on him.

But it wasn't all domination for Carolina. The ugly turnover head sprouted again, as Michigan State forced 17 from North Carolina. And that allowed the Spartans to climb back in it. Raymar Morgan was a force for Michigan State, and this team is no joke. They have a ton of talent and it wouldn't be a shocker to see them back in the national championship game, especially with Kalin Lucas running the show.

I'm not the biggest proponent of Big Ten basketball, but any time Lucas takes the floor, he's must-watch TV. As he showed last season, he's lightning quick, fearless going to the rim and is no slouch with his jumper. He's for sure an NBA guard, even with his short stature. He's strong, aggressive and unafraid of anyone. Late last night, he was just killing whoever Roy Williams assigned to defend him: Drew, Marcus Ginyard, Strickland. Didn't matter, Lucas was going to shake them. He didn't have a great game early on, but he nearly led Michigan State to an improbable comeback. He's definitely the real deal.

But it wasn't enough. The young Tar Heels used their size and strength (and surprising outside shooting) to get a big victory against a highly ranked opponent early in the season. That's a confidence booster that should frighten the rest of the country. Although North Carolina was ranked in the preseason top 10, and surely will be back in the top 10 after last night's victory, they are thought to be more vulnerable this year after losing so much from last season's championship team. But as the year wears on, they will undoubtedly get better as they mature and Roy Williams has more time to develop them. This was the time when the likes of Michigan State were supposed to feast on Carolina. If they're winning games like last night's this early on, image how tough they'll be to beat come February and March.

BallHype: hype it up!

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