The wait is over for Carolina fans. After coming up “one rebound away” from a national title, Tar Heels fans are hoping this year’s team will follow in the footsteps of the 1982 and 2017 championship squads, who returned to the national title game and won, after losing the previous year.
Carolina is bringing back 4 of their 5 starters from last season, as well as 2 key reserve players. According to NCAA Reference, 82.7 % of the minutes played, and 79.4% of their scoring returns from last year’s roster. All that being said, this is a totally different team without star forward Brady Manek. Northwestern transfer Pete Nance (yes from the Nance family) replaces Manek at the power forward spot, and much like a Jazz group replacing their bassist, the song may be the same, but the essence has certainly changed.
Nance’s game is quite different from the catch and shoot style of Manek’s stretch game. Pete can put it on the floor and has more of a face up game. It will be tough to replace Manek’s production. Not only was he a deadly outside shooter, but he was excellent playing off the ball, making good cuts to the basket at precisely the right time–in addition to having superb court vision as a high level passer. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that with Nance, the Carolina front line will be rock solid on defense with 6’11 Nance (a big who can guard on the interior and perimeter), 7 footer, and POY front runner Armando Bacot, and 6’8 small forward, Leaky Black (one of the best one on one defenders in the country). With a stout front line and probably the best backcourt in the nation, it is no surprise that UNC was ranked #1 in the pre-season polls. But there are many factors to all championship runs, and the most talented team does not always win the NCAA tournament–in fact, they usually don’t. A few things need to go right for Tar Heel nation to hang another banner up at the Dean Dome. Here’s what needs to happen for Carolina to be the last team standing:
The Tar Heels need a lot of luck. Many a championship has been derailed by a bad bounce, a tweaked ankle, broken bones, or ruptured ligaments. The Tar Heels will need to be both good and lucky for the team to hoist one up after a victory on the first weekend of April. There is no need for an Iron 5 to carry the load, as the Tar Heels are wildly talented across the board, but most of their talent on the bench is unproven. Small forward, Puff Johnson played well in the tournament, but has endured a great deal of injuries throughout his college career. He is already dealing with knee soreness that has kept him from playing the first two games of the season. Next off the bench out of Kinston, NC, is Dontrez Styles (if the city sounds familiar, its the hometown of both Brandon Ingraham and Jerry Stackhouse).
Dontrez was the only other bench player getting light to mid-heavy minutes in last year’s tournament run. So far, forward Tyler Nickel, a freshman, freshman guard, Seth Trimble, and Sophomore guard Demarco Dunn make up the remaining players to get minutes this season. The bench won’t have to put in too much work, but they will have to make an impact when they do play in order for Carolina to maximize its talent. Besides, Bacot, I think an injury to Pete Nance would be the only injury they could not absorb for a long (or key) period of time because not only will they be short a big man, but no backup will be available to spot Bacot.
The depleted Tar Heels just may have snuck by the Kansas Jayhawks (clearly the better and deeper team. Kansas needed to play poorly and Tar Heels needed to play near perfectly for the game to even be close) had Bacot not suffered the twisted ankle against Duke in the semi-finals. All the other positions have bodies that coach Hubert Davis can throw out for an extended period of time (which would only benefit these young cats as the season’s stakes get higher). Their front line on paper is stout, but no one is mistaking this for Dean Smith’s 93 championship team, with 7 footers just hanging out on the end of the bench, waiting to spell Eric Montross.
Who will get Brady Manek’s points?
Having a deadly shooter like Brady Manek really opens up the floor for easy baskets, both outside and in the paint. Manek barely got more than a dozen touches, but if you blinked you would miss a barrage of points in a matter of minutes. Having a catch and shoot big man to throw at defenders really opens up the floor, and allows the guards to handle the ball knowing there is a scorer who doesn’t need the ball in his hands all the time. I think this will be the biggest adjustment stylistically. From what I’ve seen so far in pre-season and the first 2 games, there is a lot of dribbling going on (they only had 4 assists as a team in the first game against UNC Wilmington). It would be nice to see some action from the big men out of the high low sets or just some straight up entry passes down on the block to Armando.
I believe Leaky Black is going to step up his offensive production. He seems more confident in his shot, and if he can be a reliable 3 and D wing, this will allow Nance to just get in where he fits in. Of course, Love and Davis, can get 30 on any given night. I think we will see a different hero depending on the opposing coaches’ “pick your poison” strategy. Carolina has 3 different starters who can take over offensively, and a monster on the glass in Armando Bacot. It will be interesting to see what actually works in real time against the Tar Heels.
Play Hard. Play Smart. Play Together
Everyone must improve upon last season.- Armando Bacot needs an effective jumper to open up the floor. Caleb Love needs to learn to value possessions and pick his spots of when to take over. Leaky Black will be needed for his defense and as a perimeter threat for this offense to run at its finest. Pete Nance has to find his niche within the offense and be a constant contributor on defense and on the boards. All the bench players have to maximize their time on the floor, and find ways to contribute in any way they can. Even the training staff and game managers need to be on point. Lastly, Coach Davis needs to really find out who can he count on when its time for a role player to make a play (or just hold a lead). There are no guarantees in a basketball season, but I like the Tar Heels’ championship chances a lot more if the team is fresh going into late March. Its really important that everyone contributes and that Coach Davis can keep the starters’ minutes down to healthy number. No More Iron 5. The key to a lengthy post season run will be balance.
Dean Smith used to say that there are 3 seasons in college ball: the ACC regular season, the ACC tournament, and the NCAA tournament. For a lot of people (UNC players are already on record saying its championship or bust), there will be great deal of disappointment if North Carolina isn’t the last team standing. However, when you consider the breaks that Carolina caught on their way to the Final Four, you realize just how hard it is to win six games in a row against the best teams in the country.
Last March, UNC played three #1 seed teams, and a # 2 seed on their way to the title game. They caught the number 1 seeded Baylor Bears on an off afternoon and won a game they had no business winning. After that, they were playing with house money. The UCLA game (# 2 seed) could’ve easily gone either way, but Caleb Love got hot in the second half. Carolina caught a tiny break when Purdue (who would’ve been a nightmare matchup for UNC with their frontcourt depth), got caught slipping against St. Peters. The Duke game was a classic, but could’ve easily gone the other way on a different night. And despite the close score, I feel the Kansas game was the perfect storm, Bill Self’s squad would’ve won easily in a best of seven series, but happened to play one of their worst halves of the season, and Carolina played a near flawless one.
But this goes to show just how fickle the hoop gods are. Tar Heels are a 1000-to-1 odds on to win this year, but if you’re not a betting person, and just a Carolina fan, my advice is just enjoy the ride, no matter how it ends. Last year’s run was my favorite tournament run since the Roy Williams’ 2003 Kansas undermanned team made it to the title game. And though neither team won its the final game, it was easy to appreciate just how hard both teams fought and clawed their way to the final stage on Monday night, with an entertaining and fun cast of characters on the court.
Every year the underdogs are celebrated, as they should be, but there is something to be said about a good team, overachieving to the point where they look like a great team. In the tournament, as well as in life, sometimes you come up short. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have a special season. I just hope the Carolina players and fans enjoy each step of the journey, no matter where it takes them.
Good Ass Games of the Week
Tuesday: : Duke vs Kansas
Neutral court. Nap town. Blue Bloods. Top ten. Nuff said. This game has a little bit of star power too. Its like a McDonald’s All American game.
Wednesday: Gonzaga vs Texas
Zags’ Drew Timme better not stray too far from Moody Arena if he knows what’s good for his mustache. Those Eastside hipsters’ facial hair will put his to shame. Timme will be digging for his clippers before the plane ride home. I hope the atmosphere in the new arena is electric, but you never know with Longhorns fans. As a rule of thumb, they tend to be more about pigskin than peach baskets, but they have been known to come through when a top 5 team rolls into town. Plus, the Longhorns are ranked very high at the beginning of the season. Might be worth checking out. Besides, its not like there is anything else to do on a Wednesday night. Enjoy the games this week.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, banging his head on the keyboard, trying to finish his backlog of writing projects. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org
Got some thoughts on last year’s runners up. Will share them later this weekend. Ran across this on the interwebs. Its championship or bust down in Chapel Hill, and they aren’t shying away from saying it. But again, its Carolina, and the same goals are always the same every season for those Blue Blood programs: win the conference, win the conference tournament, and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Ahead of what will be the most epic of UNC vs Duke games with the stakes higher than usual. The basketball Gods have rewarded us with a DUKE v. UNC Semi Final game. This one has star power, and will serve as a defacto reunion game in what is fittingly Coach K’s final UNC game. I’m extremely excited about this game and the cherry on top will be another Kansas title. Gonna be a legendary final four this year. What a perfect ending to the season. BEAT DUKE!
[The following is an excerpt of a chapter from my upcoming book, Tao of the Passing Big Man, and other essays. Due out if ,and when we survive this global pandemic.]
With only 8 miles separating the schools, it is only natural for a rivalry to develop between Duke University (a private school) and University of North Carolina (a state school);especially as both basketball programs continued to develop in their competition for the state (and the nation’s) top basketball talent. Being in such close proximity only lends to more intrigue; much like two neighboring high schools. Teams hop on the bus to go play in the next town, and after the game, win or lose, they got to get on the bus to go back. Anyone who played high school athletics knows that feeling. Only a few miles separate Wake Forest, NC State, Duke, and North Carolina. This is what…
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Even back in 1997 this was a historic matchup between two elite college coaches. Lute Olson was already known as a good coach from his Iowa days, but he created his own ecosystem down in Tucson when he made Arizona perennial contenders. Meanwhile, Roy Williams was entering his ninth season as a head coach, and had taken Kansas to two Final Fours already, and kept the program afloat as a Midwestern juggernaut. Going into this Sweet Sixteen game, the Jayhawks had only lost 1 game out of 35–giving them a deceiving 34-1 record. The Big 12 wasn’t cracking as a basketball conference yet, with a Chauncey Billups led Colorado finishing second in the standings with 4 losses, and a six loss Tom Penders coached UT squad that was in its final run as an exciting upstart team ( Penders would be gone after the following season). Neither coach had won a National title yet (although Roy was an assistant on the ’82 UNC title team), so this had all the makings of a classic with a bit of tension woven into the Sweet Sixteen storyline.
Arizona would go on to win the game 82-79 and at the time, I remember the media pushing this as another Roy WIlliams’ collapse to fit the narrative that his Kansas teams underachieved during the post season. There may be some truth to that, of course history is much kinder to Roy after he won multiple titles over in Chapel Hill. But in the 90’s, it felt like the media enjoyed those post game press conferences of Coach Roy Williams crying into the microphone, lamenting his players’ lost seasons. But after watching this game the other night, it is obvious that not only did Roy not get outcoached by Lute Olson, but maybe perhaps this 34-2 Jayhawk team may have overachieved. Hear me out for a second.
- That Kansas team was not that deep to begin with and had battled injuries the entire year with their star players. Both Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard had missed games throughout the season, and going into the tournament guard Jerod Haase was playing basically one handed. When Scot Pollard got into foul trouble early in the 2nd Half (Probably the only real in game mistake Coach Williams made–leaving Pollard in too long after he picked up third foul–4 fouls with 17:50 remaining), it was obvious the Jayhawks were in for an uphill battle.
- This was the perfect storm for Arizona, a team with a lot of depth in both their back and front lines. Jason Terry, Miles Simon and Mike Bibby had a field day, creating penetration at will, and no one to guard them. Other than Vaughn (who had his own problems guarding Bibby), there was no one to help out on the perimeter defense. Once Vaughn picked up his 4th foul at 9 minutes, the Arizona guards went on attack mode getting bucket after bucket in the paint. Kansas couldn’t get stops during winning time and Bibby, Terry, and Simon took advantage of no Pollard in the paint and foul stricken Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn. No one that Coach Williams brought off the bench could guard anyone in the Wildcats’ backcourt.
- Kansas got outrebounded by Lute Olson’s rotating front line of A.J. Bramlett, Donnell Harris, Michael Dickerson, Eugene Edgerson, Bennett Davison. The Zona guards also got their fair share of rebounds, crashing the glass and somehow catching loose balls and caroms, providing second chance possessions that almost always led to points. The quickness of the Arizona players allowed them to jump the passing lanes (Jason Terry broke the team’s season steal records with 85 thefts) and create turnovers. Kansas had 12 turnovers in the first half alone, some unforced, but Arizona’s pressure defense created a lot of problems for Kansas’ thin backcourt.
- Kansas’ best players had their worst games of the season. Pollard was rendered ineffective with foul trouble and only attempted a handful of shots at most. Raef LaFrentz only got four first half shots and finished below his season average for scoring. Jacque Vaughn played well, but not as well as the team needed him to play. There were many posessions where Vaughn needed to penetrate and create scoring opportunities, but instead gave the ball up early to a perimeter shooter (even during the final possession). Paul Pierce balled out, keeping the team in the game with timely shots, blocks, and steals. He even created two turnovers during the final stretch of the game when Kansas was down by 10 and clawed their way back to within 1 point.
- Bringing me to my next point: Kansas could’ve laid dwn after going down by 10 with 2 minutes to go, but they kept fighting and gave themselves a chance to go into overtime with the final possession. Role players like Billy Thomas and Ryan Roberson hit timely 3 pointers to trim down that big Arizona lead, and had it not been for a blown (wide open) layup by B.J. Williams, and a missed alley-oop by LaFrentz, history might look at this Jayhawks post season run differently.
Kansas really just ran into the perfect storm with a deep and well coached (Olson coached the perfect game and arguably a perfect tournament run) young Arizona team. On paper, it may look like an upset, but Arizona beat 3 #1 seeds to win that tournament–led by a Freshman point guard in Mike Bibby. Providence proved to have been seeded too low with the legendary God Shammgod and a veteran front line of future professional NBA players. Carolina had Vinsanity and Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota. Kentucky was coming off a championship season and had only lost a couple players from their title team. This is one of the best NCAA tournaments of all time and it could’ve gone either way. Even if Kansas had beaten Zona, the road to a title was not a cakewalk by any means.
This game featured a lot of future professional players. With Bibby, Pierce, and Terry (future teammates for a spell in Boston and Brooklyn) making respective their marks in the NBA. Vaughn, Pollard and LaFrentz would take journeymen roles and Michael DIckerson made a little noise in his brief NBA career. Simon, Bramlett, Robertson, and Thomas would have a cup of coffe and catch some balls in the league for a spell as well. This Sweet Sixteen game stands the test of time and is one of the Good Ass Games of Good Ass Games for many reasons. It is worth investing the 1 hour and 20 minutes it will take to watch it. But don’t take my word for it; click on the link and find out for yourself.