Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Tar Heels Are Coming

Two seasons ago, Roy Williams was cutting down the nets for the second time as head coach of his alma mater. Then, just like the first time around, he lost damn near every major contributor to the team. In 2005, it was Jawad Williams, Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants who went on to the NBA.

In 2008, it was Tywon Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough who won their title and pursued the riches of the NBA.

North Carolina was able to weather the storm from losing a quartet of NBA players in 2005-06 thanks to talent that was still in place and a trio of freshmen that came in and contributed right away. David Noel provided senior leadership, juniors Wes Miller and Reyshawn Terry steadied the hand, and freshmen Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green proved the Tar Heels were in good hands. They finished 23-8, 2nd in the ACC and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before getting upset by Final Four-bound George Mason.

Last year they couldn't handle things the same way. For the first time under Roy Williams, the Tar Heels really struggled, so much so that they didn't even make the NCAA Tournament. There was no Tyler Hansbrough to inject new blood into the roster. There were no David Noels or Reyshawn Terrys to show the guys the ropes. Marcus Ginyard, the player expected to be that guy, spent nearly the entire year hurt. That left Deon Thompson, a role player on the national title team, and Will Graves, a player who spent his entire career in and out of Roy's doghouse, as the senior most members of the team. And Graves did such a great job as a leader that Roy Williams dismissed him from the team this year, when he would have been a fifth-year season.

The rest of the team was composed of incredibly young players not quite ready to take on such a heavy role. The season was a disaster. UNC finished 20-17 overall. They went just 5-11 in ACC play. And things were so bad that the Wear twins, David and Travis, transferred after the season.

Things were supposed to be different this year. North Carolina had the top-ranked high school player in the country coming in, a player so highly regarded that he was named to the preseason All-America team, coming in along with highly touted recruits Reggie Bullock and Kendall Marshall. Tyler Zeller was now a healthy junior looking to lead, and John Henson expected to take the next step.

But when the season kicked off, the Tar Heels stumbled out of the gates, and expectations were tempered again. Harrison Barnes struggled mightily to adjust to the college game to the point that he couldn't even hit a shot. The rotation looked stodgy and unimpressive. Carolina lost back-to-back games to Minnesota and Vanderbilt. They lost by double digits at Illinois.

But then something happened. They beat a talented Kentucky team that was ranked 10th in the nation and a few games later lost by only two to a Texas team that is now ranked third in the country. After that loss, they rattled off five straight wins, albeit against weak opponents. But that gave a young team confidence.

Still, it looked like it meant nothing after they got embarrassed by a bad Georgia Tech team, losing on the road by 20. However, as embarrassing as that loss was, it looks like it could be the turning point in North Carolina's season.

The very next game, Harrison Barnes hit the go-ahead 3-pointer late, and including that game he's averaged 18.8 points per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the field since. That includes 25 and 26 points in back-to-back games, and a game-high 17 in a 20-point win over Florida St. Sunday. It took him a little while, but lately he looks every bit like the player he was expected to be.

Complementing Barnes has been fellow freshman Kendall Marshall. Seeing that Larry Drew simply wasn't the answer, Williams turned the reigns over to Marshall. All he's done since is turn into Jason Kidd 2.0. He's provided such a steady hand while taking Drew's starting job that Drew has decided to leave the team. Marshall responded by handing out 16 assists Sunday and now leads the ACC at 6.3 assists per game.

All the sudden, North Carolina has won five straight and 10 of their last 11. They are very quietly sitting at 17-5 on the season, and just a half game behind Duke for the ACC lead at 7-1 in conference play. A win tonight at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the Tar Heels will be in sole possession of first in the ACC.

Suddenly this game doesn't look like it will be as lopsided as we once thought. Duke, who many were talking about going undefeated this season, lost their freshman phenom point guard Kyrie Irving and have since lost to Florida St. and St. John's. Meanwhile the Tar Heels are in the midst of a hot streak, and just came off a demolition of the same Seminoles that were the first team to knock off the Blue Devils.

North Carolina is the No. 1 rebounding team in the ACC. That's largely due to the interior presence of Tyler Zeller, who has been UNC's best player all year, and John Henson's length. They also have the highest field goal percentage in the conference, with Henson leading the entire ACC shooting 58.4 percent. Henson also leads the conference in blocks at 3.1 a game.

Dexter Strickland has continued to improve in his sophomore season, and Justin Knox and Reggie Bullock have given UNC some quality bench minutes. This young team is finally coming into form. And if they can somehow manage to steal a victory tonight in one of the toughest places in the country to play, you better take notice.

No matter what the outcome tonight — victory or blowout defeat — it's safe to say the Tar Heels are coming. March is right around the corner, and this young team is playing its best basketball of the year. With a little more seasoning and a little more experience, they're only going to get better.

No comments:

Post a Comment