Friday, December 23, 2005

#3 Villanova Levels La Salle, 98-57

by Craig Dimitri

La Salle was a once proud program, and still has loads of tradition, including a NCAA title in 1954. Although the Explorers haven't had a winning season since 1993, Villanova has had trouble with La Salle during that span. Incredibly, La Salle entered the game with a 5-1 record at the Pavilion, far and away the best of any Wildcat opponent, with Villanova's only victory having been on January 12, 2000. (Villanova has only 15 losses to non-Big East opponents in the Pavilion, with five of them coming against La Salle, even though La Salle was only played every other year for most of the 1990s). And heading into tonight, Villanova still led the all-time series by just a 28-26 margin, even after winning six of the last eight clashes.

Well, their second loss was a memorable one. Villanova handed the Explorers their worst defeat in the venerable, 72-year history of the series, by the margin of 98-57. It just eclipsed the previous mark, a 90-50 defeat that Kerry Kittles and company inflicted on Lincoln's Birthday in 1996, when La Salle was playing its home games in the old Spectrum.

Both schools came into the game unbeaten, with identical 7-0 records - in all likelihood, the first time in the Big Five's 50-year history that two schools had faced each other with both being 7-0. Obviously, one would suffer its first loss of the season. And it was La Salle who did all of the suffering tonight.

Villanova improved to 8-0, the first time since the 1977-78 season, when Roland V. Massimino was at the helm, and also moved to 2-0 in the City Series. La Salle fell to 7-1, 0-1 City Series, and was stymied in the pursuit of its first 8-0 start since Lionel Simmons's 1989-90 squad.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

#3 Villanova Gets Past Penn at Palestra, 62-55

by Craig Dimitri

Each year, it is worth reminding, that in City Series play, anything can - and often does - happen. The last time the Penn Quakers and Villanova Wildcats played in this situation (at the Palestra with Villanova in the top five) it was December 1996 (what has become known as the "Tim Thomas year", to differentiate it from the others of that era).

That night nearly a decade ago, Penn had no business defeating Villanova, and they didn't. However, with the old ghosts in that building, the Quakers always have a fighting chance. And so as could have been expected, Villanova survived an unpleasantly rocky game, but managed to best Penn, 62-55, on Tuesday night. It was, far and away, the stiffest challenge to still-undefeated Villanova this season.

That Penn - now 3-4 overall, 0-2 City Series - would put up a tough game at the Palestra was to be expected. The Quakers, despite their mediocre 3-3 record entering the game, lost by only 13 at #1 Duke earlier this season, and at home they were going to be very tough, regardless of the number in front of Villanova's name. The Quakers charged with a 24-7 run in the second half and trailed by just four, 55-51, with just under two minutes remaining.

What wasn't expected was a bizarre technical charged to 'Nova at crunch time, after Jason Fraser got caught as the sixth man on the floor, coming out of a timeout, and was whistled as he belatedly tried to scurry off the court. Apparently, this situation is not unusual, but the officials usually wait to present the ball to the opponent, until the superfluous player(s) safely escape the court - it's not like having 12 men on the field in football, where everyone is shuttling in and out on every play.

In what could have been devastating to Villanova's chances, the officials offered no such courtesy to the Wildcats. But all's well that ends well, and in the final analysis, Villanova improved to 7-0, 1-0 City Series. They will face Big Five rivals La Salle and Temple in their next two contests, before beginning Big East play against newcomer Louisville.

Go Wildcats!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

No Gambling for #4 Wildcats, as 'Nova Cleans Up Longwood in Atlantic City

by Craig Dimitri

It was not how one would describe a typical Villanova cupcake game. Instead of being played at the cozy on-campus Pavilion, it was played 78 miles away in Atlantic City, NJ, the oasis for slot-playing seniors. And it was played against Longwood, a school which few (if anyone, at least if they're being honest) had ever heard of. (Ray Didinger, the distinguished football writer, wittily noted on WIP that "the only Longwood I had ever heard of was Longwood Gardens [the large landscaped nursery out in Chester County] and you'd figure that they'd be pretty busy at Christmas time, with little time for basketball.")

Didinger wasn't the only one, of course, who had never heard of Longwood, which brought a 2-6 record into the contest. For one thing, it is not located anywhere near Atlantic City. It is, instead, in Farmville, Virginia, in the south-central interior of the state, near the North Carolina border, a bit southwest of the state's capital, Richmond. It is, according to Mapquest, 312.73 miles/5 hours, 32 minutes, from VU.

Longwood is a former Division II school, which is in the process (a long, painful one, apparently) of making the fitful leap to full-fledged Division I status. (If you really want to learn more - It appears to be in the third year of the four-year transition, which would seem to indicate that it will be a bona fide D-I school by the 2007-08 season.

Along with a handful of other schools making similar transitions, it is an independent with no conference affiliation. One fact alone establishes the growing pains: last season, the Longwood Lancers went 1-30. (Cool name, though, the alliteration rolls off the tongue.) This year's team has already doubled its predecessor's win total.

Accordingly, it would be safe to say that if Longwood somehow managed to defeat #4 Villanova, it would rank with Chaminade defeating Ralph Sampson's Virginia back in the early '80s, as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.

Fortunately, Villanova did not provide an opportunity for Longwood to be the lead story on SportsCenter, with the biggest upset of 2005. The Wildcats defeated the Lancers by the surprisingly close margin of 90-77, improving to 6-0 and remaining among the ranks of the unbeaten.

Longwood could point to a moral victory. They still managed to outrebound 'Nova significantly, 44-35, and trailed by 29-25 at one point, and shot 50% (6-12) from beyond the arc.

As one might imagine, this was a rather unusual scenario for a December Villanova game - playing an obscure Division I (and a half?) school from rural Virginia, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The game was played in Boardwalk Hall, within walking distance of the various and sundry casinos. The venue's 7,000-odd seats were filled with VU students, alumni and fans, many of whom, as the cliche goes, inhabit the Garden State, as AC is just a relatively-quick jaunt from VU down the aptly-named AC Expressway. (And if you were coming from points north, the Garden State Parkway.)

The senior backcourt, as usual, paced the Wildcats. Randy Foye had 27 points on 9-18 shooting, and Allan Ray had 20 points on 7-15 shooting. Will Sheridan had a powerful game underneath, scoring 13 points on 6-10 shooting, while collecting eight rebounds, in only 29 minutes. Mike Nardi had a fine all-around game, scoring a dozen points, dealing five assists and grabbing three rebounds. For Longwood, the leading scorer was Michael Jefferson, with 19 points.

Throughout the game, Wright was able to spread playing time to the bench, a long-overdue move, and the chief reason why the victory margin was only 13 points. ('Nova was never threatened, holding a 44-32 advantage at halftime.) For once, Villanova moved away from the four-guard alignment: Kyle Lowry played only six minutes, as he was bothered by back spasms.
Freshmen Dante Cunningham (22 minutes), Dwayne Anderson (12 minutes), Bilal Benn (13 minutes) and Frank Tchuisi (2 minutes) all got into the game, as did Chris Charles (8 minutes) and Baker Dunleavy (2 minutes).

Obviously, it was the first (and likely the last) meeting of the two schools.

The Wildcats will return to action by opening City Series play, against the Penn Quakers on Tuesday, December 13, at the Palestra.

Go Wildcats!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In Homecoming for Coach Jay Wright, #4 Villanova Survives Scare at Bucknell, 79-60

by Craig Dimitri

Don't let the 19-point margin of victory deceive you. Bucknell was playing on its home floor, in front of a rabid, raucous student crowd, in the biggest on-campus game in decades. And the Bison trailed by just three, to the fourth-ranked team in the nation, in the second half. In the end, fortunately, the Villanova speed, quickness and athleticism were enough to subdue Jay Wright's gallant alma mater, 79-60, at Sojka Pavilion in Lewisburg, Pa.

Bucknell is no pushover. Last season, the Bison knocked off Big East member Pittsburgh and stunned Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And they have continued that success, this year. Bucknell was undefeated entering the game, with a 5-0 record, and has already beaten then-#17 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome as well as defeating DePaul in Chicago.

And those upsets were on the road. Here, the Bison had one of the rarest of opportunities for a Patriot League team: the chance to face a national power on their home floor, instead of constantly hitting the road for these contests. This precious opportunity came about explicitly, due to Jay Wright's four-year career at Bucknell (class of 1982). It was also one of the rarest sights in college basketball: a game in which both coaches attended the same alma mater, as Bucknell coach Pat Flannery also played for the Bison. Not surprisingly, uuntil the game started, Wright was the toast of Lewisburg, as students waved Reagan-era pictures of Wright as a player.

(The Bison's logo is also quite cool - it's identical to the logo of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, except with blue, orange and white, instead of the Bills' red, white, and blue.)

But after tip-off, Bucknell's fans and players were undoubtedly contemplating the possibility of another upset, when the score was just 44-41 early in the second half. 'Nova had raced out to an early 26-7 lead, quieting the crowd, but led by just nine, 40-31, at halftime.

And even as late as the ten-minute mark, the orange-and-blue Bison were still down just 54-48. This margin was a long way from comfortable for Villanova, with the deafening, partisan, largely student crowd (the 4,433-seat Sojka Pavilion was sold out) in full fury behind the Bison's bid, for yet another upset over a national power.

The Wildcats were able to exploit their advantages, however, after that point. 'Nova went on a 10-0 run to put the game out of reach at 64-48, and were never challenged the rest of the way. And thus, Villanova remains undefeated, at 5-0.

Randy Foye was the biggest contributor, leading the Wildcats with 28 points and 11 rebounds. After scoring just two points in the first half, Allan Ray exploded for 18 after intermission. Kyle Lowry was the only other Wildcat to reach double figures, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and four steals. One factor, that kept the Bison in the game, were turnovers: Villanova coughed it up 18 times, including seven times on Bucknell steals.

The biggest advantage was on the glass. Even playing with four guards, Villanova won the rebounding battle, 37-21, something which it is very unlikely to do for the rest of the season.

For Bucknell, Chris McNaughton virtually carried the team, especially given Villanova's weakness in the paint. He had a game-high 29 points (on 12-21 shooting, plus 5-6 from the line) and five rebounds, while none of his teammates had more than nine points. Abe Badmus (one of the great names in college basketball) contributed significantly for the Bison, with eight points, four rebounds, and five assists. Bucknell is now 5-1, although, ironically, it won at Rider by just two points, against a Broncos squad that Villanova breezed through, earlier this season.

Villanova, surprisingly, leads the all-time series against Bucknell by just a 12-8 margin, although the main reason for that fact is that prior to Wright's arrival at Villanova in 2001-02, the schools hadn't faced each other since 1948 (the schools faced each other frequently in the 1930s and '40s.) Bucknell's last victory came on December 8, 1945. In modern times, the teams' only previous meeting was at the Pavilion during Wright's first year, with the 'Cats triumphing 67-44, on December 1, 2001.

The 'Cats return to action against Longwood, on Saturday, December 10, in Atlantic City.

Go Wildcats!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

See Ya, Sooners! In Front of Dick Vitale, ESPN, and the Nation, #4 Villanova Knocks Out #5 Oklahoma in Old-Fashioned Showdown

by Craig Dimitri

Too much celebrating in Philadelphia, post-game, tonight, to finish the game story. I have the game on tape, of course, and a more detailed and fitting chronicle, for such a historic victory, to come later...

But for now, here's a brief summary:

In this rare matchup of undefeated Top Five teams, the three healthy seniors - Randy Foye, Jason Fraser, and Allan Ray - were the big stars for the Wildcats this afternoon. Foye rocked the Pavilion rims for a career-high 32 points on 14-21 shooting. Fraser played 26 minutes, scoring 10 points, collecting four rebounds. But most importantly, he blocked three Oklahoma shots, providing some key size and defense against the bigger Sooners in the paint. Fraser's looming presence underneath helped in permitting Villanova's four-guard attack to be successful, as Oklahoma couldn't keep up on defense, allowing 85 points. And Ray also helped pour it in, scoring 21 points and converting a perfect 10-10 from the line.

Villanova's quickness on defense forced 17 OU turnovers, leading to 27 Wildcat points, and the Wildcats eventually broke open a game that was deadlocked at 35 at intermission. The speedy VU guards became increasingly disruptive for OU's offense in the second half, as frontcourt players Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout scored 27 of OU's 39 second-half points. For OU, Gray led the Sooners in both scoring and rebounding, finishing with 22 points and seven boards, with Bookout contributing 15 points In the first half, OU led on the glass 21-10, but Fraser's increased presence in the second half helped 'Nova win the remainder on the glass, 10-8...

More to come!

Go Wildcats!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sovereign Power: In Trenton's Sovereign Bank Arena, #4 Villanova Busts Broncos, Crushes Rider, 86-57

Sovereign Power: In Trenton's Sovereign Bank Arena, #4 Villanova Busts Broncos, Crushes Rider, 86-57

by Craig Dimitri

On Wednesday night, Villanova completed its expected three-game warmup for the long-awaited, ESPN/Dick Vitale-presented, nationally televised confrontation with #5 Oklahoma on Saturday at the Pavilion. The Wildcats, ranked #4 in both polls, cruised to their third consecutive lopsided victory, crushing the Broncos of Rider, 86-57, at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ. Villanova (3-0) has now outscored its first three cupcake opponents by a combined score of 248-139. They have not scored fewer than 78 points or permitted more than 57.

Kyle Lowry scored a career-high 20 points, while Allan Ray had a game-high 21 points. Mike Nardi scored all 18 of his points on six triples on ten attempts, as 'Nova continued its torrid three-point pace. 'Nova ran out to a 33-13 lead in the early going, and never looked back. Rider fell to 1-3 on the season.

The chief oddity is that the two schools can't agree as to what precisely Villanova's advantage is in the all-time series. 'Nova claims that it has won 22 out of 23 against Rider (the teams play reasonably often, due to Rider's proximity in nearby Lawrenceville, NJ), in the series, which goes all the way back to 1937. Rider's only victory came on December 11, 1944, in one of the only four times the game wasn't at Jake Nevin or the Palestra, where they triumphed 48-32. (The other three times were tonight, in Trenton, and three trips to Rider). Tonight's victory was Villanova's 15th straight.

According to Rider, however, VU's commanding lead is now just 19-3, and that the 1944 victory actually took place in 1945.

Go Wildcats!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Ray, Wildcats Set Three-Point Records, Wright Wins 200th Game, Villanova Completes Thanksgiving Feast With Mountain Hawks, 84-47

Ray, Wildcats Set Three-Point Records, Wright Wins 200th Game, Villanova Completes Thanksgiving Feast With Mountain Hawks, 84-47

by Craig Dimitri

In a rare Sunday night appearance, the #4 Wildcats completed their Thanksgiving feasting with a dessert of Mountain Hawks, at the Pavilion. Villanova consumed Lehigh, 84-47, like an after-dinner mint, and improved its record to 2-0 on the young season.

Incredibly, the final score was deceptively close - to the extent that a 37-point victory can be viewed as "close" (anywhere outside of Temple University football, at least). Villanova actually had a bigger lead in this game, as we shall see below.

Both Allan Ray and the team as a whole, set school records for three-point shooting. Individually, Ray broke the Wildcat record for most threes in a single game, by draining no fewer than eight triples, on 16 attempts. Not surprisingly, Ray had broken his own school record of seven, which he had set on March 2, 2004, against Miami. The senior sharpshooter finished with a game-high 26 points against Lehigh. As a team, the Wildcats set an all-time high for triples, with 17 for the contest.

[Historical note:

The previous team high for three-pointers in a single game had been set, in a very memorable game in 1999. On January 7 of that year, Villanova faced Notre Dame in South Bend. Due to a massive snowstorm, the game could not be played at night, and it had to be rescheduled for a weekday afternoon - and the ND student were away on break, to boot. With the game rescheduled for a weekday afternoon, in hte midst of a South-ben-paralyzing snowstroms, there were virtually nofans at the game. Thus, Villanova effectively had a neutral court for this road game. And the Wildcats made the most of the opportunity, pummeling Notre Dame, and the chief reason for the victory was the fact that Villanova set a team record for triples that game, with 16, which had stood for nearly seven years - until tonight, in fact.

In retrospect, that game was probably the catalyst for the 1999's team's overachievement, reaching the NCAA tournament as a #8 seed and losing by just two points to #9 Mississippi in the first round in Milwaukee. Although nobody knew it at the time, obviously, it would be Villanova's only NCAA appearance, during the seven seasons which spanned from 1998 to 2004.]

In a neat historical touch, Ray's record-setting 8th triple was also the team-record-setting 17th, which came with about 6 minutes to play and rendered the score 80-36 (a 44-point advantage, easily doubling up the other team's total with plenty of room to spare). With Wright properly and mercifully emptying his bench, Lehigh managed to win the remainder of the game, 11-4, and avoided being doubled (so at least they had that fact, to point to afterwards, as a scrap of positive news.)

Coach Jay Wright won his 200th career game, counting both his previous tenure at Hofstra, as well as Villanova. Wright spent the seven seasons from 1994-95 through 2000-01 there, and compiled an overall record of 122-85. (Although the more revealing statistic was that his final three years there, using players whom he had recruited, he went 72-22, reaching the NIT in his fifth year and two NCAA tournaments in years six and seven.)

This was Wright's 78th victory on the Main Line, against 54 defeats. But at the current pace, he'll be at 100 Villanova victories by the end of the season. The 'Cats need to win at least 24 games this season to get him to the century mark, but given that last year's team won 24, and this year's team should be better, it's very doable. As for 200 Villanova victories - that's for the end of the decade, with some consistent 20+ win seasons. All in all, this game against Lehigh, will - clearly - be among the easiest that he's ever had, in compiling his 200 victories.

Lehigh had no ability to stop the four-guard strategy employed by Wright, as Ray's fellow three guards all had outstanding games as well. Senior Randy Foye finished with 21 points (including five triples), junior Mike Nardi with 14 points (including three triples), and sophomore Kyle Lowry had an even dozen. Jose Olivero led the Mountain Hawks with 15 points.

Villanova improved its record to 2-0 on the young season, and has outscored its two hapless opponents by a total of 162-82: nearly doubling up the overmatched opposition. This was already Lehigh's sixth game of the season (and we haven't even entered December yet), and the Mountain Hawks plummeted to 2-4.

Villanova now leads the all-time series, 9-3. Tonight's meeting was only the second since the 1948 season, despite the relative geographical proximity of the schools (the only other modern one came in December 1992, at the Pavilion). The series goes all the way back to January 12, 1924, when host Lehigh defeated the Wildcats, 31-19. However, Lehigh hasn't won since 1942.

Rank And File

The Wildcats are currently ranked #4. It is Villanova's highest ranking in nearly a decade. The last Top Five ranking for the Wildcats came in the salad days of the mid-1990s, when teams led by Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams (and for a single year, Tim Thomas) Villanova took up seemingly permanent residence in the Top 25: in fact, often the Top 10.

Villanova's Rankings This Season

After last season's Sweet 16 run, ending with a controversial loss to the eventual champion, North Carolina, the Wildcats ended the season at #13 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, and #19 in the Associated Press poll.

Week 1 - Nov. 7-13 - #5 (1) AP/#4 (1) ESPN/USAToday

Record: 0-0

AP: #5 ranking (one 1st-place vote), 1,413 points

ESPN/USA Today: #4 ranking (one 1st-place vote), 644 points

Week 2 - Nov. 14-20 (temporarily unavailable, but unlikely unchanged from #5/#4 in both polls, since 'Nova had one lopsided victory to its credit)

Week 3 - Nov. 21-27 - #4 (1) AP/#4 ESPN/USA Today

Record: 1-0

AP: #4 ranking (one 1st-place vote), 1,474 points

ESPN/USA Today: #4 ranking, 650 points

Saturday, November 19, 2005

#5/4 Villanova Suffocates Seawolves in Season Opener, 78-35

by Craig Dimitri

The Wildcats entered Friday night's season opener against Stony Brook with the loftiest of expectations. Ranked #5 by the AP and #4 by the ESPN/USA Today poll, Villanova has been making national waves, after their strong NCAA tournament run last March ended in a Sweet 16, heartbreaking loss to North Carolina, the eventual national champion.

Accordingly, the Main Line faithful have not seen in a decade - since the heyday of the trio of Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, and Jason Lawson - a season with such glittering promise.

And they were not disappointed in the season opener, at the Pavilion. On a rare Friday night game, the Pavilion was about as well-attended, as it could be for any November game against a cupcake opponent. Most attendees were eager to escape the elements, which had gone from one extreme to the other, in less than 48 hours. (For those of you, outside of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, it was 75 degrees here on Wednesday, and frigid cold on Friday). The crowd was raucous and spirited, and they had quite a lot to cheer about. Villanova absolutely obliterated (and I do not use the term "obliterated" lightly) Stony Brook, 78-35, in the season opener for both teams.

Villanova allowed only 35 points - the fewest it has ever allowed an opponent, since the shot clock was introduced in 1985-86 (ironically, the year after the national title). The most recent occasion, where any opponent had even been held below 40, was in 1996-97, the "Tim Thomas year" (along with Williams and Lawson), when VU walloped UNC-Wilmington, 87-38, at the Pavilion, on December 30, 1996. Even going back into the pre-shot clock era, Stony Brook's 35 points were the fewest of any VU opponent since Rollie Massimino's Wildcats won a 36-34 contest at Penn State . That game (in what was undoubtedly a virtuoso display of Coach Mass's ability to hold the ball) took place on February 4, 1979, well before the vast majority of the cheering,"V"-shirt-clad students at tonight's game were even born.

The four-guard lineup, installed by coach Jay Wright due to the indefinite absence of the injured Curtis Sumpter, revved the Villanova offensive engine. The backcourt duo of Randy Foye (a game-high 21 points) and Allan Ray (16 points) led the way, with Foye also garnering seven rebounds. Mike Nardi also reached double figures with 13 points and dealt three assists, and Kyle Lowry scored 9 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. The only non-guard starter, Will Sheridan, had a game-high 11 rebounds.

Wright experimented with a variety of defenses, some with pressure, some without. The one trait all the defensive alignments had in common, was that the Seawolves had no success against any of them. Stony Brook managed to score only 16 points in the first half, and just 35 for the game.

How Dominant was the Villanova Defense?

The Wildcats held Stony Brook to just 32% shooting from the floor, 25% from beyond the arc. And, although Villanova obviously can take no direct credit for this, the Seawolves shot a comically inept 9% from the line (that's not a typo). The team went 1-11 from the line, with forward Tre Cunningham missing all six of his attempts. No Seawolf scored more than seven points: three players made it that far - Cunningham, Marques Cox, and Bobby Santiago. (Ironically, none of those three played more than 20 minutes, and they were the three top scorers.)

The Wildcats also owned the backboards at both ends, hauling down more than twice as many as the Seawolves (46-22; all those missed free throws helped create easy defensive boards). Villanova had 10 steals (Allan Ray led with three) and forced 18 turnovers.

As dominant as the defensive performance was, it could have been even worse for Stony Brook. Had Wright opted to leave the starters and top-of-the-bench reserves in the game for its entirety, Stony Brook might not have even reached 35. Wright emptied the bench - as he should have - with just over five minutes to play. The Seawolves went on a mini-flurry during garbage time, scoring five quick points, on back-to-back possessions- something they rarely achieved during the rest of the game. (Ross Condon, a walk-on, finally got into the game in the final minute, committing one foul.)

Villanova had this game won, virtually from the moment both teams stepped on the court. The Wildcats zoomed to a 27-10 lead with over eight minutes to play in the first half, padded that lead to 37-16 at halftime, and never looked back. Possibly the single most dramatic moment happened at the end of the first half, with Stony Brook playing for the last possession (there was about a 3 second differential between the game clock and shot clock). Near the end of the shot clock, the Seawolves forced up a shot, which was rebounded by 'Nova. Nardi made an off-balance heave to the basket, from well behind 'Nova's foul line (about a 90-foot shot, or thereabouts). Nardi somehow managed to hit the rim with that ball (although it would not have counted, if it had gone in, as the official had correctly waved it off, as soon as Nardi released it). Nonetheless, if Nardi's shot had gone in, it would unquestionably have been on "SportsCenter".

But defense wasn't the whole story. Villanova shot 50% from the floor, made 10 of its 25 three-point attempts (40%), and attempted 32 free throws, compared to just 11 for Stony Brook, and its 62.5% success rate dwarfed the aforementioned 9% for the Seawolves.
I was somewhat surprised that the bench players didn't see more minutes, if for no other reason, that Villanova is very unlikely to have this many lopsided victories. (There are only five cupcakes on the schedule, including tonight, and three of those aren't even true cupcakes, because they won't be at the friendly confines of the Pavilion. 'Nova will be playing AT Wright's alma mater, Bucknell, and will also face Rider at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ, and Longwood at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.)

Using tonight's game as an indication, it appears that at least for the next few games, Wright is going to use the four guards, along with Sheridan and Jason Fraser, in heavy rotation. Freshman Dante Cunningham will be worked in and out as the 7th man. This assumption is solely based on the fact that Cunningham played 16 minutes tonight, with fellow frosh Dwayne Anderson (7 minutes), Frank Tchuisi and Bilal Benn (5 minutes each) seeing significantly less time. Baker Dunleavy logged 4 minutes tonight and drew perhaps the crowd's biggest cheer, by calmly draining a three near the end of the contest.


Cunningham turned in a great performance: four points, six rebounds, two steals, an assist, and no turnovers, and all in just 16 minutes of action. Anderson scored three points and had one turnover in 7 minutes. Benn had an assist and a turnover, but did not take a shot in 5 minutes, and Tchuisi's only notation in the box score was a blocked shot in the same amount of time.

This was the second meeting between the two schools, both of which have resulted in easy Villanova victories at the Pavilion. The first meeting was during Wright's first season (2001-02); on December 11, 2001, 'Nova won 76-54, with no trouble. The Long Island school, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, has only been in Division I, since the 1999-2000 season. And the team is playing under a new coach, Steve Pikiell. (Pikiell was a Connecticut Husky, during their late-'80s rise to prominence, and served as captain of the team for two seasons.) After his playing career ended, Pikiell had been an assistant at George Washington and his alma mater, among other stops. Stony Brook had a 12-17 team last season, although this year's America East race is up for grabs, since last year's NCAA entrant, Vermont, lost their nucleus. (The Villanova Times, in their outstanding Basketball Preview issue, reported that Street and Smith had pegged the Seawolves fourth in the America East and gave them a fighting chance at the conference title).

Still, props must be given to the Long Islanders. Obviously, Stony Brook was vastly overmatched in talent, athleticism, bench depth, quickness, and size (in short, basically every attribute needed for a potential victory). Nonetheless, the Seawolves consistently hustled, dove and fought for loose balls, played hard for 40 minutes, in spite of the fact that they knew they had no chance of even keeping the contest close, let alone winning. And that augurs well for their future in the America East. (About the only area where Stony Brook could match the 'Cats, was in court appearance; the Seawolves sported simple, classic red-and-white uniforms, with easy-to-read block numbers.)

Of course, Villanova's thrashing of Stony Brook does provide an auspicious start for what the Villanova faithful hope will be the team's finest season in a decade. And perhaps, with a few good breaks and the eventual return of Curtis Sumpter (sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury), an appearance in the Final Four for the first time since the magical 1985 team won it all.

The Wildcats will enjoy a long break over Thanksgiving. There will be a nine-day respite, and the squad will return to action against Lehigh, at the Pavilion on Sunday night, November 27. It will be the second of three cupcakes to open the season, before the Wildcats meet their first real challenge, Oklahoma (ranked #6 in both polls), at the Pavilion on December 3.

Go Wildcats!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

North Carolina, Midnight End Villanova's Season in NCAA Sweet 16, 67-66

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Around the stroke of midnight on Friday night, Villanova's would-be Cinderella run to a Final Four came to an end as well. The Wildcats' 2004-05 season ended at the hands of depth, firepower - and luck - as they ended up losing by a heartbreaking 67-66 score, to the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse, N.Y., at the Carrier Dome.

The loss was particularly galling, since Villanova had led by double digits (by as much as 21-9 and 30-19) in the first half, and by four at intermission. 'Nova's peak for the game probably took place when Foye nailed a triple at the 6:15 mark, to boost the Wildcat advantage back to 11 points at 30-19. It is a fitting testament to North Carolina's dominance this season that the four-point deficit was the largest they had overcome this season.

However, after play resumed, Villanova began to cool off, and North Carolina went on a 7-0 run early in the second half to take its first lead of the contest at 44-42, after Marvin Williams converted a pair of free throws at the 11:43 mark.

The Wildcats appeared to have gotten the break they needed when Felton picked up his fourth foul with 8:43 to play. However, Rashad McCants picked up his game, scoring seven straight points for Carolina. After the Tar Heels began to dominate play in the second half, the Wildcats trailed by 10, 64-54, with under three minutes to play.

But when point guard extraordinaire Raymond Felton fouled out at the 2:11 mark, the Tar Heels began to unravel, and the Wildcats still almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, they came up a single point short, although they outscored the Tar Heels, 12-3, in the final two-plus minutes. It was among the most painful, yet exhilarating, losses to watch in Villanova history, for those reasons.

The Tar Heels (30-4) advanced to the Elite Eight to face #6 Wisconsin, a team Villanova would likely have been favored against, even without Curtis Sumpter. Ultimately, the Wildcats were not able to simultaneously overcome both the loss of Sumpter, and their short bench against Carolina. Coach Jay Wright was even forced to insert practice player Baker Dunleavy to replace Randy Foye in the final seconds, after Foye had fouled out. Dunleavy has played only 24 minutes this season, but trailing, Wright desperately needed another potential three-point shooter and neither Marcus Austin nor Chris Charles fit that bill.

North Carolina has now subsequently defeated Wisconsin, to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2000. The 30th victory was the first time since 1998, that a Tar Heel squad had reached the 30-win plateau.

This appearance is an NCAA-record 17th trip to the Final Four, and North Carolina's seventh in the last 15 seasons. It also clearly signals the recovery of North Carolina's program, under Roy Williams, after its dip during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Three years ago, Carolina finished 8-20; two years ago, they were in the NIT.

However, the Wildcats gave the Tar Heels all they could handle. North Carolina has many NCAA appearances over the years, 121 to be exact. But this was Carolina's first one-point NCAA tournament victory in 23 years, since the 1982 team featuring Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins defeated Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the NCAA championship game, 63-62.

It was just Carolina's fifth single-point NCAA victory, ever. North Carolina also posted season lows in field goal attempts with 48, field goals with 20, and steals with three. Particularly during the first half, the Wildcats were able to successfully dictate a slow, deliberate tempo to the game, attempting to protect their short bench and shorten the game, much in the same way that Wright's mentor, former coach Roland V. Massimino, used to do so successfully.

North Carolina managed just 29 points by halftime. The game began to slip away, however, in the second half, when the fleeter and deeper Tar Heels began to fully exploit their advantages in transition. They began to successfully grind down the Wildcats, who until the shocking comeback in the final three minutes, appeared to be just about out of gas.

For some reason, North Carolina - which was making its 20th Sweet 16 appearance since 1975 - plays particularly well in the Carrier Dome. Including the victories over Villanova and Wisconsin this weekend, the Tar Heels are now 8-1 there all-time, and 7-1 in NCAA tournament play, including topping Villanova easily, in the second round of the 1991 tournament.

But on Friday, the Tar Heels had to overcome an odd coalition of anti-UNC fans in the building, who were not shy in expressing their avid preference for a Villanova victory. Well represented at the game were a large contingent of Villanova fans, crosstown rivals from NC State who resent North Carolina's dominance, Wisconsin fans who had just seen their team advance by beating NC State, and fervently wanted the lower seed Villanova to advance to face the Badgers on Sunday, and local Syracuse fans who were presumably pro-Big East.

Villanova finished arguably its best season in 17 years with a final record of 24-8, reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 and the Sweet 16 for the first time in 17 years. Seven of the eight losses were by six points or less, and all were to teams that reached either the NCAA or NIT.

The Wildcats crushed then-second-ranked Kansas and upset nationally ranked Boston College and Pittsburgh at the Pavilion, as well as West Virginia, ranked at the time of the game and which made a Cinderella run of its own to the Elite Eight. The Wildcats also advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988, defeating #12 New Mexico and #4 Florida in order to face #1 North Carolina.

The Wildcats, playing without Curtis Sumpter, out with a torn ACL suffered in last week's second round victory over Florida, turned in a remarkably gallant effort, against a superior opponent. Villanova held the Tar Heels to just 67 points, the fewest it has scored in any of its previous 29 victories. In all North Carolina games, the only other lower one had been 66, for a team that had entered averaging 88.8 points a contest, and that game was the 77-66 season-opening loss to Santa Clara on Nov. 19, when point guard Raymond Felton didn't play due to rules violations.

Randy Foye scored 28 points (just one below his season-high) to lead the Wildcats, while Kyle Lowry added 18 points and seven rebounds. For North Carolina, Rashad McCants led with 17 points, and center Sean May had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. A crowd of 30,916 watched the game, setting a NCAA record for an on-campus regional, eclipsing the mark also set at the Carrier Dome in 2000.

I joined many other Wildcat fans upstairs, at the Wild Onion in Rosemont, Pa., where I watched the game with a packed house of passionate and raucous Villanova fans, who went home bitterly disappointed. Their disappointment was particularly aggravated by a controversial traveling call against Allan Ray, who had a potential game-tying three-point play disallowed, with 9.0 seconds remaining.

With North Carolina clinging to a 66-63 lead with just 9 seconds to go, it initially appeared that North Carolina's Rashad McCants had fouled Ray and the basket had counted, causing a momentary explosion of joy among 'Nova fans everywhere. However, the elation was short-lived, as it was ruled a travel and the basket nullified. Carolina was able to hold on and win by making free throws down the stretch.

All three CBS analysts - Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, and Seth Greenberg - in the New York studio immediately afterward, strongly disagreed with the official's call. However, it would not be fair to blame the call exclusively for Villanova's defeat, as-
  1. Ray still would have been required to make a free throw just to tie the score,
  2. The Wildcats would then have had to stop the Tar Heels on the final possession, and
  3. Then the Wildcats would have needed to win in overtime, and
  4. The overtime victory would have had to come without Mike Nardi, who had fouled out with 34 seconds to play, and with Randy Foye carrying four fouls (Foye would foul out in the final seconds of regulation after the travel call). It was the first foulout of the year for Mike Nardi in 30 games, as he had averaged just 1.5 fouls a contest all season.
Prior to the game, I suggested three key factors to watch for: perimeter shooting, rebounding, and Jawad Williams (please see "The Ultimate Villanova/North Carolina Preview, Part 3" for the details). I selected these because in North Carolina's rare losses this season, there was a noticeable downturn in each. Let's look at each in turn:

  1. Perimeter Shooting: More than anything else, this doomed the Wildcats. North Carolina shot 42% from three-point range, while Villanova fired at just 29% (8-26).
  2. Rebounding: Villanova was badly outrebounded, sorely missing Sumpter in this department. The Tar Heels won the battle on the glass 38-29.
  3. Jawad Williams: Tremendous success on this one. Williams, who averaged 15 points/game in North Carolina victories, against just 7.5/game in defeats. Williams was limited to just 2 points against Villanova on 1-4 shooting, logging only 23 minutes.
For Villanova, Randy Foye led the way with a herculean effort, scoring 28 points (just one short of his season high) and undoubtedly opened a lot of eyes with his performance. Kyle Lowry also dazzled. In the starting lineup, the freshman scored 18 points and had seven rebounds against a much taller team.

Unfortunately, in Sumpter's absence, the Wildcats really could have used a stronger performance from frontcourters Will Sheridan and Jason Fraser, who combined for 62 minutes of play but scored just seven points.

Villanova needed another scoring option, since Ray continued his NCAA drought. Ray scuffled to a 2-14 shooting performance, the third straight subpar game for the second-team All-Big East player. With Sumpter on the bench (where he clearly borrowed some clothes from Coach Jay Wright's wardrobe, given how well dressed he was) and Ray cold as ice, Villanova desperately needed a third scoring option to accompany Foye and Lowry, but none was forthcoming. Hence defeat.

For North Carolina, Rashad McCants led with 17 points, with all but two coming after intermission. While McCants was effectively shut down from the floor (he finished with just 3-9 shooting), he more than made up for it at the foul line, making nine of his 10 attempts.

Super-freshman Marvin Williams came off the bench to score 16 points and collect five rebounds. Sean May bulldozed his way to his 16th double-double of the season and the 11th in his last 13 contests. May finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds despite playing only 28 minutes due to foul trouble.

Felton finished with 11 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, and five assists, but also committed six turnovers, including fouling out on an incredibly ill-advised play on Nardi with two minutes to go, nearly leading Carolina to implode down the stretch. It was Felton's first foulout of the season, and only the third of his career. And given Carolina's performance after he went to the bench for good, the Tar Heels can ill-afford to have him do it again in St. Louis this weekend.

Overall, Villanova won the turnover battle, one of the few statistical categories it dominated. The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers and committed just nine, although the last-second travel on Ray was the most costly turnover of the season. The nine turnovers were the fewest committed by any North Carolina opponent this season.

Villanova had some tough sledding to overcome, historically; it was the 27th time a #5 seed had faced a #1 in the Sweet 16, and the underdog has pulled off an upset only five times, including Michigan State's upset of Duke earlier in the evening.

Congratulations to Jay Wright and the Wildcats on their tremendous season, as well as to Roy Williams and the Tar Heels on their advancing to the Elite Eight for the 21st time in UNC history.

Go Wildcats!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Ultimate NCAA Sweet 16 Villanova/North Carolina Preview, Part 3

To the Wildcat faithful-

In Part 3, we break down the 2004-05 Tar Heels' season and players, and look at the intangibles entering Friday's game...

Carolina This Year

The Tar Heels are enjoying their first unalloyed season of success since Guthridge left after the Final Four in 2000. There was a revival of positive focus on the Tar Heels this year, since all five starters were coming back and Carolina was voted #2 in the ACC pre-season poll.


The season got off to a rocky start when the Tar Heels were whipped by 11, while visiting unheralded Santa Clara in Oakland (but basically a home game for the Broncos in the Pete Newell Challenge) in the November 19 opener (Felton missed the game). However, Carolina righted the ship, ripping off 14 straight victories and soaring near the top of the polls. Victims:

BYU, @ Tennessee, Iowa, USC, @ Indiana, #8 Kentucky (by 13), Loyola-Chicago, @ newly-minted ACC member Virginia Tech, NCAA qualifier Vermont, UNC-Wilmington, Cleveland State, William & Mary. Most were blowouts: the Tar Heels scored 105 points or more in four of those games.. In a remarkable coincidence, Carolina will now have faced three programs closely associated with Rollie Massimino in one year: Vermont (his alma mater), Cleveland State (where he ended up after Villanova), and of course, Villanova on Friday - probably the first and only team ever to play those three diverse programs in the same year. (Maybe it's a good omen... :)

ACC play

What troubled the ACC was that the blowouts didn't cease, once Carolina began conference play and facing schools in its own weight class. The Tar Heels buzzed through the first half of ACC competition, as well. In its first two ACC contests, Carolina beat #21 Maryland by 34, 109-75, and then #8 Georgia Tech by 22.

The Tar Heels fell at #3 Wake Forest by 13, for only their second loss of the year, dropping their record to 3-1, 14-2. But then the blowout wins began to mount again. Carolina leveled its next five ACC opponents - @ Clemson, Miami, @ Virginia, NC State, and @ Florida State - by margins of 19 or more. The centerpiece was a 110-76 massacre at UVA which certainly didn't help Pete Gillen's chances of surviving this season (which he hasn't, subsequently.)

And so Carolina entered the most popular regular-season game of the year nationally, the Duke/Carolina game at Cameron on Feb. 8, with a 19-2, 8-1 mark, to take on the #8 Blue Devils (many of whose current students had no direct firsthand experience of Carolina being good).

To return to Smith to a moment, he did NOT like losing at Cameron, nor did he find the antics of the Duke students (which were often directed at him and his godlike status) entertaining. According to Feinstein, "Smith has never found the Duke students as amusing as most others do. His rivalry with them is probably as intense as with any coach or team... He wasn't thrilled in 1988 when, after he had been in a fender bender with a Duke campus bus outside the Duke chapel (he was taking his parents to church there) they loudly chanted, 'Dean Can't Drive' when he appeared in Cameron that season." After Duke captured its second straight national title in 1992, Smith was greeted with chants of "Mike's got two, Dean's got one" during Carolina's visit there in 1993 (a pointed reference to Smith's sole national title in 1982 with Jordan). But unfortunately the chant could only be used for a single game, as Carolina went on to defeat Chris Webber and Michigan's Fab Five in the 1993 title game, in the infamous too-many-timeouts fiasco (Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn't have at crunch time, leading to a technical foul and handing the game to Carolina, although the Tar Heels certainly might have won the game in any event.)

I don't particularly like Duke either, and although I love Dick Vitale, the one aspect of Dickie V I don't like is his genuflection before coaches in general and Coach K in particular. But, in much the same vein as my enjoyment of Carolina's early 21st-century struggles, I do find it cool that even in the state of North Carolina, that Smith got treated as something less than an imperial figure, even if for only two hours at Cameron once a year.

"If Dean Smith had been candid on one subject over the years, it was the fact that he enjoyed nothing more than beating Duke at Duke. He had never liked the irreverent atmosphere of Cameron; Duke was the archrival and the greatest threat - long-term - to Carolina's mastery of the ACC. Krzyzewski's presence over the years had made it more person. Smith always had his team ready for Cameron. He was 18-17 throughout his lengthy career there and there is little doubt that each of the 18 ranked high on his list of satisfying wins."

(That's pretty incredible - 18 wins - and a winning record! - at Cameron. Obviously, nobody else will ever approach that.)

Back to 2005, when Duke outlasted UNC in another classic, 71-70. Whether as a result of that game or otherwise, Carolina's dominance was not as extreme the rest of the year. They consoled themselves after the loss by flying up to Hartford and beating the defending national champion, #14 Connecticut, 77-70. The Tar Heels followed it up by crushing both Virginia and Clemson at the DeanDome.

Which brings me to my next point-

Incredible, but true: Clemson and Carolina are both charter members of the ACC, founded in 1953 as a secession movement from the Southern Conference (cheap joke, but they know all about secession movements down there.) And they have played each other well before the ACC was founded; they've faced each other since 1926.

Clemson has traveled to Carolina, no fewer than 50 times since then.

But the Tigers have NEVER won at Chapel Hill.

Ever. Not a single time in 79 years.

After three more wins this year, Carolina now leads the all-time series by an incredible margin of 116-19 - how can you be almost a hundred games under .500 against an opponent? :) Even Matt Doherty went 5-2 against Clemson.

Granted, Clemson is a football school in a basketball conference, but that's still a record of futility that strains even the fertile imagination of the basketball gods. It is by far the longest such streak in NCAA history of one school failing to win at another school. Clemson couldn't even beat Matt Doherty in three tries, although his third year, the Tigers only lost by two at the Smith Center. And if they couldn't beat HIM at Chapel Hill, odds are that it may NEVER happen :)

And for what it's worth, Carolina's ACC victory margins began to drop a little bit. In the trip to NC State, whom they had flattened by 24 in the first game, they won by 10. In the trip to Maryland, whom they had annihilated, they won by just two, although they did beat Florida State by 15. To cap off the regular season, the Tar Heels won the rematch against Duke at the DeanDome, on March 6, winning 75-73. The Tar Heels won the ACC regular season at 14-2, after finishing fifth last year at 8-8. It was the first time anyone had gone from 5th to 1st in one year since Georgia Tech did it back in 1996, and the first time anyone had jumped six ACC wins in one year since Duke also did it in 1996.

Carolina struggled in the ACC tournament, though, especially in light of how dominant it had been in the regular season. A possible reason: in a historical anomaly, the ACC tournament shifted north to Washington, DC's MCI Center, home of the Georgetown Hoyas, as a sop to the northern schools in the conference, Maryland and Virginia. Traditionally it had been held in North Carolina, close to UNC, NC State, Duke, and Wake Forest, most frequently at Reynolds Coliseum at NC State - which for many years was the premier sporting venue in the state - and then to the true-neutral Greensboro Coliseum.

After topping Clemson by 51 points in two meetings, Carolina struggled with the Tigers in DC, winning by just seven, and then was upset by #25 Georgia Tech in the semifinals, 78-75, the second straight loss to former VU assistant Paul Hewitt's Yellow Jackets in the conference tournament. The Tar Heels finished with a record of 27-4 overall, 14-2 ACC.

The loss didn't cost them a #1 seed, however. The loss to Santa Clara (a middle-of-the-pack West Coast Conference team) was about the only thing that could, and it was so long ago that it didn't appear to hurt them (and Felton didn't play in that game). It was UNC's NCAA-record tenth #1 seed, but its first in seven years, and Williams' sixth after five with KU.

North Carolina sprinted effortlessly throughout the first two rounds of the tournament. They were rewarded with the right to face the play-in game winner of Oakland/Alabama A&M. (There should be a level playing field. It's not equitable to have to prepare for one opponent, fly to Dayton and play, and then fly to another site where a #1 seed is waiting for you, having rested for four or five days. One extra at-large team should be omitted and all the automatic bids given legitimate chances to win by abolishing the play-in game.) In the first round, as expected, UNC did not break a sweat in defeating Oakland, 96-68. On Sunday, while Villanova was finishing off Florida, Carolina overcame a momentarily sluggish start to breeze past #9 Iowa State, 92-65. ISU led 13-12 in the early going, before Carolina turned off the after-burners.

Breaking Down The Tar Heels

Judging from the team statistics and the Iowa State box score, it is clear Williams will only use eight players in his rotation against Villanova. Everyone on the team got into that game, but only eight guys played 13 minutes or more, and if they didn't play more than three minutes in that game, we won't see them. Eight guys average more than 16.5 minutes a game.

Unfortunately for us, the Tar Heels are VERY deep and VERY good, which is why they are 29-4 this year and have the top seed.

Depth isn't an issue. Williams doesn't have a single player logging more than 31.5 minutes a game, and only Raymond Felton has more than 26.0 per game. They also have eight other guys on their bench. Nine different players have started at least one game, and Marvin Williams, who made the ACC All-Freshman team, isn't one of them.

They lead the nation in scoring with nearly 90 points a game (88.8), and have won nine games by 30 or more points, including six trips past the century mark. Five guys average double figures or better. Carolina hasn't enjoyed such well-balanced scoring since 1995, when a team led by Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace also had five guys do it. And they draw a lot of fouls: Carolina has made more FTs this season than its opponents have attempted. During the final week of the season, the Tar Heels ranked in the top 10 nationally in eight different categories: scoring and scoring margin, FG%, 3FG%, rebounding margin, assists/game, steals/game, and winning percentage.

Nor is it all offensive firepower. The Tar Heels force 19 turnovers a game and have many active defenders.

Here's another overall view. According to one veteran, Washington, DC-based college basketball observer, who has seen the Tar Heels play several times this season:

"This Carolina team reminds me of the '94 UNC team with Rasheed [Wallace], [Jerry] Stackhouse, [Jeff] McInnis -- all of whom are still in the NBA today -- as well as Donald Williams and Eric Montross, who had played key roles in the '93 championship team. The '94 Carolina team was the consensus preseason #1, and had by far the most talent in the country... and got knocked off in the second round of the Tournament. [Note: The observer is referring to the 1994 game when 9th-seeded Boston College upset the top-seeded Tar Heels in the second round of the NCAA tournament, behind 21 points from Gerrod Abram. The Heels, just one year removed from a national championship, went 28-7, came in second in the ACC regular season, won the ACC tournament, qualified as a #1 seed, but were bounced in Landover, Md., by the Eagles, a very rare second-round exit for a Smith-coached squad.] "This Carolina team is similar. Four future NBA first-round draft picks. Loads of talent. But they don't play together as a team. In 6 or 7 years, everyone will look back and say, 'How did these guys not win the National Championship?' But mark my words, they will not." "Like the '94 team, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Maybe they'll lose to Villanova, maybe they won't... but they're ripe for the taking."


The horse in the middle is Sean May. A first-team All-ACC selection, May was simply unstoppable against the Cyclones on Sunday, turning in a monster performance with 24 points (on 8-9 shooting) and 17 rebounds in only 30 minutes. May was named recently to sundry All-America teams, usually second-team. He averaged 16.5 pts/10.7 rebounds and just over one blocked shot a game, just the 12th Tar Heel to ever average a double-double in points/rebounds for an entire season. Among the list is Billy Cunningham and Bobby Jones, both 76ers legends.

May is the son of Scott May, who was the National Player of the Year on the last NCAA team to go undefeated, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers under the odious Bob Knight.

Another big gun is Rashad McCants, who averages 15.8 pts and shoots threes at a 40.6% clip. McCants, a junior, was actually a first-team All-ACC pick last season but made only the third team this year. May or may not come back for a senior year. Got sick in February and missed the last four ACC games, including the home finale against Duke. Here's a scary fact: McCants' absence seemed to be barely noticed by Carolina, which won all four games without him: at bubble team Maryland, at crosstown rival and Sweet 16 member NC State, Florida State, and of course Duke at the Smith Center. He returned with seemingly no ill-effects for the ACC tournament, where he scored 30 points in two games.

At one forward spot is Jawad Williams, a senior, and McDonald's AA from Cleveland. He's third in the ACC in FG% at 54.9% and has improved at all aspects of his game, relative to his first three years, showing substantial improvements in every category. He doesn't get the ink of Felton, May and McCants, but Dickie V named him to his "All-Support" Team in December. He ended up getting some recognition, though, finishing up as a third-team All-ACC selection.

Good news for 'Nova: Williams averages 14.1 a game, but his shot noticeably tailed off down the stretch, possibly because of fatigue. After routinely breaking double figures all year, he only broke double figures in one of Carolina's last four games before the NCAA tournament and shot only 11-35 in them. Reportedly, according to posters, these fades at the end of the season are typical of Williams due to injuries.

And don't foul him - he's an 84% shooter.

One guard is junior Raymond Felton. Felton was also accorded first-team all-ACC honors and was the Maui Invitational MVP. Felton, who has started all but one game since arriving in Chapel Hill, is an outstanding defensive player, narrowing missing being named to the conference's all-defensive team, finishing sixth in the voting. Felton also sharply improved his shot this year, making Carolina's already formidable offense that much stronger. Entering the season his career shooting percentage was 40.7%, now it's 46.1%. But even more dramatic was his improvement from beyond the arc, which vaulted from 34.1% to 44.0%; he led the ACC in three-point accuracy this year. Felton also led the ACC in assists (for the second straight season) and was third in steals.

Try not get confused with all of these Williamses - in addition to coach Roy, there are two members of the rotation also named Williams, Jawan and Marvin. Marvin was a unanimous ACC All-Freshman team and deemed the #1 Impact Diaper Dandy by Dickie V, pulling down five ACC Rookie of the Week awards this year.

Finally, there is Jackie Manuel, a 6-5 senior swingman, a defensive specialist, named to the All-ACC defensive team. He replaced Melvin Scott in the starting lineup.. He's not a threat to score. He probably would have drawn the assignment of guarding Sumpter if he were playing, and instead may get Foye. Manuel is popular with the Carolina fan base due to his unselfishness and team effort.

Off the Bench

There is Marvin Williams, described above, who averages 11.2 points off the bench. He's the first Tar Heel to average double figures off the bench since Jerry Stackhouse did it in 1994. For a freshman, he has veins of ice, leading the team in FT% at 84.8%, and he gets to the line a lot - he was second on the team in FT attempts, despite the fact that he doesn't start and only averages 22 minutes a game. He is dogged with a sprained toe he suffered in February against UConn and which won't heal fully till the offseason.

Rumors swirl on the Carolina boards that Williams may forego his final three years of eligibility and head for the NBA after this season.

Williams seems to be the Kyle Lowry of the Tar Heels - everyone raves about the lift he provides off the bench.

Next, there is Melvin Scott, a senior guard and former starter, who overcame an extraordinarily difficult childhood (in his media guide essay, Scott notes that he was expelled from five different schools) on the streets of Baltimore, to arrive in Chapel Hill under Doherty as an elite recruit. Scott, now a devout Christian who credits religion with saving him, gave the following answers to a question from the UNC media guide: His favorite person in history he'd like to meet is "Moses, to ask him how he parted the Red Sea". He wears #1 because "#10 was retired and I'm the first #1 in the history of Carolina". Scott, undoubtedly because of his background, is very serene about his diminished role at Carolina under Williams.

Finally, the eighth member of the rotation is David Noel, a junior from nearby Durham. Noel is another defensive specialist, similar to Manuel, and his backup, but can dunk and shoot the three-ball if necessary.

Overall Intangibles

Remember, Carolina is only three years removed from a 8-20 season, and three of UNC's rotation - Jawad Williams, Manuel, Scott - played on that team. Most of them - all juniors and seniors - have firsthand memories of Doherty, and were recruited by him. This is not your typical Carolina team brimming with confidence.

In fact, they're only marginally more battle-tested in the NCAA tournament, than absent-for-six-years Villanova. Since going to the Final Four in 2000 in Guthridge's final year, Carolina has won a grand total of two games in the NCAA tournament, both against low seeds, not counting the two they won last weekend (which were also against low seeds).

In short, if you have to face Carolina as a #1 seed, this is probably the best year ever to do it, before they get that swagger back under Williams... Speaking of whom...Williams, of course, is quite familiar with Sumpter, having coached him on the USA basketball team this summer, although he won't have to face him.. Williams describes Sumpter as "a friend of mine..."

Beating Carolina

Control the perimeter, crash the boards, and shut down Jawad Williams.

Looking at their four losses, helpfully totaled by the Carolina Sports Information Office, two facts jump out as a team. Carolina didn't shoot well, or defend well, from beyond the arc (29.6%, as opposed to 41.8% in their victories). Their opponents shot just 33.5% from beyond the arc in Carolina wins, but 39.0% in Carolina losses.

They also didn't crash the boards, as their opponents nearly matched them at 38.0 boards per game vs. 38.8 for the Tar Heels. In Carolina victories, they rebounded with a vengeance, with 40.6 per game while permitting 31.8 for their opponents.

Also, for individual players, the key appears to be shutting down Jawad Williams. There's more of a divergence for his numbers in wins/losses than any other Tar Heel. Williams averaged 15.0 pts in victories, but Williams literally was "half the man he used to be" in defeats, scoring 7.5 a game in the losses to Santa Clara, Wake Forest, Duke, and Georgia Tech.

Can 'Nova Win?

Well, of course the 'Cats are the underdog, especially without Sumpter, but it wouldn't require a miracle. Villanova has already pummeled Kansas, who is just as good as Carolina (albeit at home, sort of, and with Sumpter). Roy Williams has conceded that the 'Cats will have a LOT more fans there, since it's a lot closer to Villanova.

And the quirk of the Christian calendar, which produced the early Easter holiday, will probably tamp down travel for Carolina fans, who won't have time to go all the way to Syracuse, and still make it home for the holiday (and they probably wouldn't find it worthwhile to go just for one game). (Perhaps a positive omen from the Almighty :)

Plus, Sweet Sixteens obviously aren't a major event to the Carolina fan base, unlike ours. Despite our increasingly rare trips to Syracuse, the 'Cats still will have played in the Carrier Dome more often than the Tar Heels have, so that's a slight advantage as well.

That's it. As I conclude, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the UNC Athletic Communications Office, who helpfully rush-mailed me the exquisite UNC Media Guide and Game Notes, so helpful to me in the composition of this guide. And thanks also to the Carolina fans who graciously and articulately responded on message boards, and in e-mail to my requests for information on the Tar Heels.

Go Wildcats!

The Ultimate NCAA Sweet 16 Villanova/North Carolina Preview, Part 2

To the Wildcat faithful-

In Part 2, we look at Roy Williams' tenure, the legendary Carolina/Duke rivalry, some of Carolina's most famous traditions, and Villanova/North Carolina history...

Part 2

And so, after the 2003 season, Roy Williams was finally persuaded to tear up his roots in Lawrence and come back home. As to why he did that the second time, I'm not sure. Carolina had sunk to such depths (and it hasn't recovered fully - it won't until it gets to another Final Four) that Williams might genuinely have felt that Carolina was in a crisis mode; if another disastrous coach was hired, Carolina might sink permanently to the bottom of the rugged ACC. So he might have done it out of a sense of loyalty.

Another more subtle theory I have: Williams was shrewd enough to know that Doherty was likely to fail in Chapel Hill (although I doubt that anyone foresaw that Doherty would be as bad as he was). Doherty had been on his staff at Kansas and Williams had been a Carolina assistant when Doherty had played for the Tar Heels, so they know each other very well. And he recognized that his political standing at UNC would be a lot higher if he came in in the wake of a disaster, rather than right after Guthridge.

This episode was memorialized in college basketball lore, after Kansas fell to Syracuse in the 2003 title game, amidst the firestorm of rumors in the wake of Doherty's demise. In the aftermath of the loss, CBS' Bonnie Bernstein conducted the traditionally awkward losing-coach interview, and asked Williams about the Carolina job. (Williams had never won a national title at Kansas, and so the interview would have awkward even under the best of circumstances.)

Williams tried to deflect the question, which was highly inappropriate given the situation.. (Did she really expect him to answer the question, right then and there?) But Bernstein pressed on, undoubtedly egged on by the producer in her ear (a fact Williams pointedly noted on the air) and Williams - ordinarily a gentleman of high composure - used a four-letter word on live CBS network television. (Remember, this was nine months prior to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction", which took place during CBS' Super Bowl broadcast the following year. And so Roy Williams using profane language during a major CBS sporting event was considered a major story :)

Thus, Williams returned to Chapel Hill to do what once would have been considered unthinkable - rebuild at Carolina. Williams is by all accounts a decent guy, a southern gentleman, another long-time member of the Carolina family, who actually had far deeper roots in the state than the Kansan Dean Smith. Williams grew up in a small town in North Carolina and played only on the freshman team - then coached by Guthridge - when he attended North Carolina, never the varsity. But Williams learned the Smith system inside and out, and eventually took over for his mentor. After serving as a high school coach in North Carolina for five years, Williams became an assistant to Smith in 1978 at age 27.

Williams spent ten years in Chapel Hill, before taking the head coaching job at Kansas in 1988, despite the fact that he had no ties whatsoever to KU (another storied program with an extended coaching tree) and had never served as a collegiate head coach. He replaced fellow UNC alum Larry Brown, who had just stunned heavily favored Oklahoma to win the national title but left a NCAA mess in his wake. It worked out for both sides: the Smith magic rubbed off, and Williams won big in Lawrence. So big, in fact, that the biggest gripe against him was that he never won a national championship in his 15 years there. (A good problem to have...) Even with last year's mediocre UNC team added in, Williams remains the all-time winning percentage leader among active NCAA coaches.

Among other things, Williams captured nine Big Eight/Big XII regular-season titles, made four appearances in the Final Four (including splitting two games with UNC while there), won 34 NCAA tournament games, reached the Sweet 16 nine times, avoided being upset in the first round in 14 tries, and reached 400 wins faster than any but three coaches in NCAA history. Williams was there for 15 years and reached at least the second round of the NCAA tournament every year he was there, with the exception of his first season, in which he went 19-12. (And which wasn't his fault, because he inherited a team on probation, and accordingly wasn't eligible for the NCAA tournament, anyway.)

His Kansas teams got as high as #2 in the polls, at some point, in 11 of the 15 years, and six of them made it to #1. The Jayhawks in the 1990s once went 145 consecutive AP polls without falling out of the Top 25. In all of his non-probation years, he never failed to win fewer than 23 games a season, and he cleared 30 or more wins five different times, including his final two. Of course, Williams has never lived down the 1997 season, when KU went 34-2 (including a 22-0 start) with Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Haase and Scot Pollard, but failed to reach the Final Four after being upset by Arizona, the eventual winner, in the Sweet 16.

Williams' first year at Carolina, 2003-04, while certainly an improvement over Doherty, was a forgettable year by historical Carolina standards. The team went just .500 in ACC play, finishing 19-11 overall, 8-8 in conference. The one bright spot of the season was upsetting #7 and eventual national champion Connecticut at the DeanDome.

The rest of the year was mediocre. The Tar Heels were swept by Duke, although both games were close, and lost in the ACC tournament to Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals. Carolina was on the bubble, with the early ACC exit, but did finally in fact get back to the NCAA tournament. However, they received just a #6 seed and were quickly bounced by Texas in the second round.

However, this year Carolina is back with a vengeance, and ironically doing it primarily with Doherty's players. Based on the years, only five of the current Tar Heels are Williams recruits, and of those five only Marvin Williams is in the rotation.

In many ways, Carolina is the model program in America. It is never on NCAA probation, and from 1983-1995, it graduated 75% of its players (on par with Villanova, which has graduated EVERY player who has stayed for four years since 1975). The national average for the entire NCAA over the same period was 42%. A word about graduation rates: 75% is about as high as you're going to get, no matter how good the program, because there will always be guys who leave for non-academic reasons. For one thing, outgoing transfers (even if they have nothing to do with academic struggles) count against your average. To illustrate, Reggie Bryant, the last player to transfer from Villanova (after Wright's first season), counts against 'Nova's rate, even if he subsequently graduates from St. Louis. And at a program like Carolina, which always has players leave early for the NBA, that will happen as well. Its players rarely get involved in off-court troubles that embarrass the program or the university.

As Feinstein puts it, remember that this is a program that is so wedded to tradition that it still has a junior varsity squad (which plays against local junior and community colleges).

Carolina vs. Duke

In the words of ESPN's Mike Patrick, "separated by eleven miles.and a couple of shades of blue." Of course, during the Doherty Dark Ages the rivalry cooled a bit, at least in terms of national interest, because UNC had fallen so far below Duke. But it's back now, since the Tar Heels are back.

Part of Duke/Carolina is cultural. It's important to remember that it's not a fair fight in the state of North Carolina; as Duke graduate Feinstein puts it, "there are more UNC graduates in North Carolina than there are Duke graduates in the world. Duke could win ten consecutive national championships and still not begin to compete with Carolina as an obsession in the state." For those of you who haven't been fortunate enough to see Duke's gorgeous campus, known informally as a "Gothic Wonderland", think of it as a fortress - Fort Krzyzewski - a small but unassailable 2,000-acre enclave surrounded by a sea of light blue hostility. To oversimplify, the rap on Duke in North Carolina is that it's a carpetbagger school with too many Yankee students.

And the rivalry is undeniable. At least one of the two schools has been ranked in the last 118 meetings - all the way back to 1960.

Also, living in a pro sports town like Philadelphia, it's important to keep in mind how much media coverage and fan interest the schools in non-pro markets enjoy. (This is a point which I meant to mention in the New Mexico preview, a state with a booming population that also doesn't have pro teams.) The NFL, NBA and NHL franchises in North Carolina all arrived over the last decade and lag far behind college basketball in fan interest. ACC basketball in general, and UNC basketball in particular, rule the roost in the Carolinas, to a degree unimaginable in the Northeast. Imagine Eagles-level coverage, but if the Eagles were a powerhouse every year for decades

Even after a brief trip to Durham/Chapel Hill, and you understand why Billy Packer and his ilk seem to believe that ACC basketball is the only stuff worth mentioning. It is such a cozy, intimate area, very beautiful, that you could probably forget that the entire rest of the world exists if you live there.

Carolina Traditions - The Ram, The "White Phantoms", The Tar Heel Nickname, and Carolina Blue

According to the media guide:

"Carolina's mascot, a ram, is named Rameses. The Tar Heels have a ram for a mascot because in 1922, the best football player, Jack Merritt, was nicknamed the "Battering Ram". Vic Huggins, the head cheerleader in 1924, came up with the nickname, which was adopted for all of UNC's varsity teams. The Tar Heels were also known as the White Phantoms, a nickname they went by until the late 1940s."

Incredibly, Carolina's 336-page media guide doesn't specifically answer the question about how the unusual "Tar Heel" nickname came about, so I had to figure it out myself...

There are two serious explanations, according to a North Carolina newspaper site. Both long predate Carolina basketball...

One is from the American Revolution, when the British Navy needed vast quantities of tar and pitch to keep the ships afloat. You needed tar to seal up the cracks and wooden gaps in the wooden hulls so they wouldn't rot. And North Carolina produced more of this vital substance than any other colony. It was messy work, though, and the sticky stuff would often get stuck to the workers' heels, hence "Tar Heels".

Another is from the Civil War, and is more romantic. The lengthy quote from the News-Observer, the newspaper in the Research Triangle down there:

"During one of the fiercest clashes of the war, a unit of North Carolinians fought alone after its supporting column had been driven from the battlefield. A group of Virginia soldiers who had retreated asked in a condescending tone, "Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?" The victorious troops responded quickly, "No, not a bit; old Jeff's bought it all up." "Is that so? What is he going to do with it?" the Virginians asked. "He is going to put it on you'ns heels to make you stick better in the next fight," came the reply. General Robert E. Lee, upon hearing of the incident said, "God bless the Tar Heel boys." Whatever the origin of their nickname, Tar Heels across the state are proud of it. And so is the basketball team!"

As for light blue, the media guide does answer that question, by noting that nobody knows precisely why that color was selected, but that:

"there is no doubt that the light blue hue is one of the most popular and instantly recognized colors in all of sports."

The cool argyle pattern on the jerseys wasn't added until 1991-92, by a fellow named Alexander Julian, whose first name probably indicates that the argyle was a tribute to not only his Scottish heritage but the many Scottish descendants in the state of North Carolina (there are a lot of Scots named "Alexander").

Villanova/North Carolina History

This is surprisingly long...

The schools have met a dozen times, with Carolina winning eight times. The first meeting came at Chapel Hill on December 29, 1955, with the Tar Heels winning 86-63. In the three NCAA tournament face-offs, the Tar Heels won in 1982 and 1991, while Villanova triumphed in 1985.

Unquestionably the top moment for Wildcat fans was in 1985, when the Team of Destiny upset #2 North Carolina, led by Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith, 56-44, in the Elite Eight, to send 'Nova to the Final Four for the first time since 1971. I still remember - I was 11 at the time - seeing one of the players on the news that night, singing an impromptu rap song:

"We're going to the Final Four/North Carolina is sore" :)

At the time of course, as a #8 seed, it already would have been arguably Villanova's greatest season even if they hadn't won the whole thing. True, the 1971 team made it to the final before losing to UCLA, but at that point in 1985, Villanova had already beaten #9 Dayton on its home floor, #1 Michigan, #4 Maryland, and #2 North Carolina in four games.

Villanova remains the only non-ACC team to ever defeat Carolina twice in one season, although that accomplishment deserves an asterisk because so few teams have ever had the opportunity. The second game against Carolina that year, at the old Spectrum (this was the final year before then-Spectrum II, now the Wachovia Center, opened its doors, was probably the high-water mark for the Kerry Kittles-era teams in the mid-'90s, much in same way that the High-Water Mark took place for Robert E. Lee's Confederate army at Gettysburg.

The Wildcats, ranked third nationally, defeated #20 Carolina in the Maui Classic on Nov. 22, 1995, 77-75. But since Carolina was already on the schedule, the then- #10 Tar Heels visited the old Spectrum on Jan. 20, 1996. And the then-#7 Wildcats flattened them on national television, winning by 20, 76-56. Incredibly, it isn't included in the media guide's "Villanova's Greatest Games" section. Granted, it wasn't the greatest UNC team ever (it only made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament as a #6 seed). But the team did have Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and Jeff McInnis, among others. The schools have not met since then. The Wildcats would get no further than the Heels, as a #3 seed, falling to #6 Louisville in the second round in a highly disappointing finish.

In 1982, the teams met in the Elite Eight in Raleigh, and Carolina triumphed 70-60. They did, of course, have Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy, and go on to defeat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown to win the whole thing. 'Nova had the freshmen that would eventually win the national title three years later, but they weren't the main points (although Pinckney and McClain did start on that team, according to the media guide.) The 'Cats had John Pinone and Stewart Granger to lead the way.

In 1991, ironically, the two teams met in the second round in Syracuse, just as they will Friday night. Carolina, the top seed, won easily, 84-69, with such talent as Rick Fox, Eric Montross, and George Lynch. 'Nova countered with Lance Miller, Chris Walker, Greg Woodard, Marc Dowdell, and Arron Bain.

Please check out Part 3 of the Preview...

The Ultimate NCAA Sweet 16 Villanova/North Carolina Preview, Part 1

To the Wildcat faithful-


Let's begin with one basic fact - entire books have been written about Carolina's program, and I can't wrap all of its history into a couple of articles thrown together in a week's time. I've invited the Carolina folks over to look at these, and requested their help as I created these articles. And for those of you who are visitors here, I'm sure I'm going to make some basic mistakes, so please bear with me. This isn't intended as a comprehensive overview of UNC's program. This is supposed to be a sketch for Villanova fans who want to learn more about UNC in advance of the game (If you want to e-mail me, you can do so at

I am deeply indebted to John Feinstein's magnificent 1998 book on the 1996-97 ACC, A March to Madness, for much of the historical material on Carolina and almost all of it on Smith, for whom that season was his last prior to retirement. It is one of the finest books on the sport ever written, and I highly recommend it - I bought the book as soon as I saw it in the Borders in Rosemont back in 1998. (Every time I use one of the stories from the book, a "JF" will appear.)

So now that's out of the way, let's begin with Dean E. Smith, the most important figure in UNC history and one of the most, nationally.. Much of this will be redundant for many of you who lived through him, but since we have current VU students who don't remember him, let's do some basics.. (It's incredible that it'll be EIGHT years this fall that he announced his retirement.

Dean Smith was - pure and simple - a basketball genius. That's not just hype. That's fact. Dick Vitale called him "Michelangelo", but that was true. Time would forbid me from listing all of Dean Smith's innovations, but let's just leave it at this, all from Feinstein:

His success with the "Four Corners" stalling offense was largely responsible for the introduction of the then-45 second shot clock beginning in the 1985-86 season, the year after Villanova won the national title. (It was reduced to 35 seconds after the 1992-93 season, coincidentally the year after Smith won his second national title.)

  • He instituted the idea of practicing endgame situations in practice.
  • He first began the practice of husbanding timeouts for use at crunch time.
  • He suggested huddling up at the foul line, after fouls.
  • He instructed players to signal when they were tired and wanted to be removed.
  • He first began the tradition of honoring graduating senior players, back in 1962. (Smith naturally felt melancholy as a player, after not starting in his final home game at KU and decided he didn't want his seniors to feel that way.)
Not that Smith didn't have critics. Lefty Driesell, the Maryland coach, once mocked Smith's self-deprecating nature, claiming that "Dean Smith's the only man in history who's won 700 games and been the underdog in every one of them." (JF)

But Smith won, more consistently and for a longer period of time, than anyone else in the entire history of the game. In 36 years as Carolina's head coach, Smith won 879 games, reached 11 Final Fours, captured 13 ACC tournaments, reached the title game five times, and won the whole thing twice - in 1982 and 1993.

In what may have been his most impressive attainment, Smith took the Tar Heels to 13 consecutive Sweet 16s. Or try out this one: From 1964-65 to 2000-01, despite playing in what in most years was the most arduous conference in America, the Tar Heels never finished below THIRD in the ACC - a 37 year span. In the ACC's 50 seasons the Tar Heels have only missed the top three six times.

Only John Wooden, who won 10 national titles in 12 years at UCLA, and Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game, rank clearly above him in the sport's history. Not that this fact has always been clear. Bill Foster, another of Smith's coaching adversaries, once wondered aloud: "I always thought it was NAISmith who invented the game, not DEAN Smith." :) (JF)

Smith could have easily had a political career had he wanted it, and if the political winds had blown more favorably in his direction. An old-school New Deal Democrat who grew up in small-town Kansas (back when Democrats still did well in places like that) Smith probably could have been elected easily to statewide office in increasingly Republican North Carolina. Smith was undoubtedly eagerly courted by the state's Democrats for that reason. But he never wanted to, and now at 73, he's probably too old. There is precedent for sports figures reaching elected office: former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, former Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, and former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and Hall of Famer Steve Largent all parlayed their athletic feats into elected office, although in contrast to Smith, all three were Republicans. (Ironically, as Feinstein points out, Coach K - the hated enemy in most of North Carolina - is a conservative Republican who would fit in a lot better politically in the state).

But even Dean Smith didn't build Carolina from the ground up. Smith took over from the guy who DID do that, the equally legendary Frank McGuire, whose interesting life I will not go into in the hopes of keeping this to a manageable length :) Suffice it to say that McGuire, a New Yorker who led the Tar Heels to a 32-0, national-championship-winning season in 1957, transformed college hoops forever by being the first to spirit elite New York City schoolyard talent, especially from the Catholic leagues, to the Deep South. (He would later coach the 76ers. Smith was hired by McGuire as an assistant.)

Many of the problems that Carolina has had over the last few years, stem from the problem that all great empires have had throughout history: namely, succession. Even Dean Smith, the Julius Caesar of NCAA basketball, was not immortal. After he broke the all-time win record (games, which by incredible coincidence, I saw in person in Winston-Salem, N.C., because VU was playing in the same NCAA bracket in 1997 :) , he decided to step down, and his long-time assistant Bill Guthridge succeeded him.

This was not a good long-term solution. At least to my limited knowledge, Guthridge wanted to be a career assistant and always intended to retire with Dean, not succeed him. Also, it caused long-term instability, since Guthridge was almost as old as Smith, he certainly wasn't going to coach very long, and he didn't.

Which led to the most publicized coaching succession/soap opera in the nation. One wouldn't think that the Carolina job would have gone a-begging, particularly within the Carolina family, as they were widely viewed as the only ones eligible. "Family" is a stronger concept at UNC than anywhere else. Smith coached so long and so successfully that his former assistants and players brought elements of the Carolina system everywhere in America. According to Feinstein, there is a strict clannish sense down there. If you're a card-carrying member of the family - a former Carolina player, manager, or assistant - you have the run of the place at practice and are welcome to hang out on the floor. Anyone else - regardless of status - has to get a little card from the UNC office saying that he's got permission to attend practice that day and sit in the upper deck of the DeanDome. (Larry Brown once came back with his assistants in tow, and got to watch practice on the floor, while his assistants were banished to the upper deck.)

Smith was a math major at Kansas, where he was a bench player on a NCAA winning team and the sixth man on the Jayhawks squad that lost the title game the following year. (Ironically, Roy Williams would play at Carolina, coach at Kansas, and then return to Carolina as well. But this meant that it wasn't unusual to have, when the teams occasionally met in the 1990s, a KU grad coaching UNC against a UNC grad coaching KU.)

And everything about Carolina's program under Smith, reflected the mathematical elegance of Smith's mind. Everything that goes on in practice is meticulously recorded for "pluses and minuses", and as Feinstein reports in an interesting quirk, graduating players can actually will their pluses to underclassmen. There are elaborate rules as to who can and cannot shoot from certain parts of the floor.

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of seeing UNC's campus, even if only briefly, it fits in well with this philosophy. (I saw Chapel Hill for about three hours, when VU went to the '97 tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C., about 90 minutes away.) It's all pillars and Georgian and Greek Revival architecture, very cool, refined, enlightened, elegant, and rational. Very nice town if you haven't been there. I only saw Durham, where Duke is located, for about four hours, and Chapel Hill for about four hours, but it definitely was one of the most memorable visits I've ever had anywhere, and I would enjoy going back with enough time to actually see everything.

Guthridge went to the Final Four in 2000 and then stepped down, and there were no shortage of candidates: Kansas coach Roy Williams and NBA coaches Larry Brown (then with Philadelphia, now with Detroit) and George Karl (then with Seattle, now with Denver), all of whom had played at Carolina. Matt Doherty, who ultimately got the job, was definitely considered a second-tier candidate. But all of the heavy hitters decided to turn it down. Williams stayed in Lawrence and neither Brown nor Karl were interested.

And so Carolina made the fateful decision that has cost it so dearly, and decided to give the keys to the most storied and successful program in America to Matt Doherty, a 39-year old who had been a head coach for a grand total of one year at Notre Dame after serving as an assistant under Williams at Kansas.

Doherty's sole trump card was the fact that he was a loyal member of the family, a guy who had played on the 1982 team with Jordan. And Carolina desperately wanted to keep it in the family.

The Doherty Dark Ages in Chapel Hill: The Fall (Without Decline) of the Carolingian Empire

Disaster ensued. It will be difficult to convey to future generations, precisely how precipitously Carolina's program crashed in the second year after he took over, 2001-02. It was like in the old Warner Bros. cartoons, when Wile E. Coyote would race off a cliff, look down, cringe, and then free-fall into a canyon amidst a puff of smoke. (Imagine him in a Carolina jersey and you get the picture.)

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire, dedicated to enlightenment, logic, success, and above all, victory over its adversaries, was in much the same situation as Carolina. It never thought it would fall, but it decayed slowly over a couple of centuries, and historians still don't agree as to precisely why Rome fell.

Two thousand years later, Carolina was in an analogous situation, with a notable exception that the succession issues at Carolina were handled without poison, assassins and knives, the standard tools in ancient Rome. Most Roman emperors died of assassination, not of old age - but not that the succession issues at Carolina haven't had their own share of plotting and intrigue, as we shall see.

Another dissimilarity was that Rome declined gradually - and to put it mildly, that wasn't the case at Carolina. It would have been as if at the height of Rome's glory under Augustus Caesar, the barbarians suddenly, without warning, charged in and leveled the entire glorious edifice of the Eternal City. Carolina went from being awesome to being terrible in a space of two years.

And finally, historians diverge as to the issue of who should get the blame for the decline of Rome. No such debate exists in Chapel Hill; Carolina was awesome before Matt Doherty's arrival, was awful while he was there, and is now awesome again, so that provides some fairly powerful evidence as to where fault lies.

For one thing, Doherty did not seem to comport himself with the humility that an inexperienced, 39 year old coach SHOULD have had, with the privilege of taking over at North Carolina solely on the strength of his figurative hoop blood ties. He came in like a bull in a china shop. He fired three long-time UNC assistants, all former players, in order to replace them with his staff from Notre Dame, none of whom were UNC graduates. He let go several beloved members of the basketball support staff, for the same reason. Basically, Doherty got the job because of his UNC ties, and when he returned to Chapel Hill acted as if those ties didn't mean anything. (The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris.)

The ancient Greeks had another term which could apply to the Doherty regime: the Furies. The whole Doherty saga did have sort of a Greek dramatic element to it. It was as if the basketball gods - who had uniformly smiled on Chapel Hill for decades, raining down an abundance of talent and victories - had gleefully opted to punish Doherty for his insolence. Doherty lost. And lost big. Carolina had the worst year it had ever had in four decades.

It really isn't right to take pleasure in this, but I do have to admit that during the Doherty Dark Ages, I enjoyed seeing Carolina get taken down a peg or two (or three or four!), and I was hoping that Doherty was going to stick around a while longer to continue running the program into the ground. (Nor was I alone in these sentiments, around the country.)

Doherty's ultimate ouster was a foregone conclusion. Maryland moved into the ACC power vacuum and assumed Carolina's place as chief adversary to Duke, winning the national title in 2002. Wake Forest's sustained success threatened to eclipse Carolina as well in the ACC. Carolina, which used to be in the business of competing for national titles, was now suddenly wondering if it was going to be able to stay in the elite in its own conference, struggling to just stay competitive with Maryland and Wake, let alone Duke, which was light-years ahead. Opposing players were beginning to say publicly that "Carolina's just another game on the schedule."

Doherty's records during his last two years were so appalling, that getting rid of him was the easy part. Nor was Doherty's captaincy a reign of serenity for the team, either. A slew of players transferred amidst shadowy media reports of abusive behavior on Doherty's part (Doherty obviously hadn't recruited most of them). Usually, when coaches get fired, their players are upset (he recruited them, after all) and most of the requiems focus in on the theme of "So-and-so is a nice guy, but..." No such testimonials appeared after Doherty got the ax in Chapel Hill. In fact, it was just the opposite.

In the aftermath of Doherty's ouster, reported that:

"Guys were frustrated and it wasn't because of the losing," said Rashad McCants, one of the team's freshman stars. "It was mostly because we had to go to practice every day saying, 'Man, we've got to deal with this guy.' "

"I've been through a tough year," {Melvin] Scott said. "But I don't hate coach. I didn't want him to get fired. But that comes with basketball, man. Personally, I want what's best for the university. Whatever's best to get this program to where it used to be."

"I don't hate coach."
Pregnant in Scott's words are the implication that he's in the minority on that score and that Doherty was in fact hated by a lot of Scott's teammates, and that Scott would be fully justified in hating him, if he chose to. (How often do you go around saying that you "don't hate" So-and-so?)

Clearly, those aren't the words athletic directors would like to hear from their players about a 42 year old coach who's clearing a salary, plus perks, of over a million dollars a year! Especially when he's just missed the NCAA tournament twice in a row, at a program that hadn't missed it at all since 1974 prior to that. (And Doherty had RECRUITED McCants and Scott. Imagine what the guys Doherty inherited felt about him.)

Gutting the program the day he got there came back to bite him. Not that goodwill would have saved Doherty anyhow, with those records, but it might have if he had been enjoying a little more success. Or maybe at least bought him another year with his top-shelf recruits.

But the Doherty fiasco obviously hasn't fatally wounded Carolina's program, as this season's success amply demonstrates. Rome struggled through some bad emperors, too, (Nero and Caligula come to mind) and they managed to stay on top for 500 years. It happens in all great empires, that the guy at the top won't always cut it, but you try to survive anyway until you get someone better.

Ironically, until Doherty's first NCAA tournament in 2001, there was little reason to think that the new regime would mean anything under than business as usual for the Carolingian Empire. During Doherty's first year, the team went 26-7 and tied for the ACC regular-season title with Duke, the eventual national champion, and lost to the Blue Devils in the tournament final, and Doherty had even won at Cameron in his first try. In fact, Doherty brought the Tar Heels to the #1 spot in the polls for a week in February before losing at Clemson. The Tar Heels ended up with a #2 seed in the NCAAs, demolishing #15 Princeton in the first round before being upset by #7 Penn State in the second.

Of course, by the Carolina standards of the time, not making the Sweet 16 automatically rendered the season a failure, but it was a rookie coach and people were willing to cut him some slack. He did, after all, win the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award. Until his second season - Carolina's worst season in 40 years. (Needless to say, he did not win any awards after that one :)

This is the Wile E. Coyote part. Carolina had been #1 at one point the previous year - and they finished 8-20 (not a typo). They went 4-12 in the ACC. The season got off to a fitting start when they lost to both Hampton and Davidson at the Smith Center. They lost to Indiana by 10, at Kentucky by 20, beat Georgia Tech and Binghamton but then lost to College of Charleston - at home.

Carolina had thus started the season 2-5 with three home losses to non-power conference teams, effectively ending its chance at a NCAA bid before Christmas. After three straight wins over St. Joseph's, NC A&T and Texas A&M brought them back to .500 at 5-5, the ship sank as rapidly as they once did off Carolina's treacherous Cape Hatteras.

Doherty's Tar Heels went 3-15 the rest of the year. They started off 2-10 in the ACC before somehow managing to split their final four games. Highlights of Doherty's sophomore season included:

winning only ONE road game the ENTIRE year, finishing 1-9 on the road and 2-11 on road/"neutral" courts (the neutral court was in Charlotte, against Charleston and St. Joe's, so it was basically a home court for Carolina). Their only legitimate non-Smith Center win was at - you guessed it - Clemson, where they won by 18.
  • a 33 point loss (112-79) at eventual national champion Maryland;
  • a 32 point loss at UConn;
  • a 18 point home loss to NC State;
  • a 29 point loss to Duke at Cameron;
  • a 24 point loss at Wake Forest;
  • an eight point home loss to Ohio University;
  • and a 25 point home loss to Duke on Senior Day.
As you can see, it wasn't an 8-20 season that could have been a NIT year with a few favorable bounces. It was a catastrophic 8-20. The Blue Devils then swiftly and mercifully put Carolina's season out of its misery with a 12 point victory in the ACC quarterfinals. It was the first year Carolina had even missed the NCAA tournament since 1974, let alone had a losing record, let alone finished with 20 losses.

It would have been fair to expect some decline from the year before; sophomore Joseph Forte decided to turn pro and Doherty wasn't able to talk two football players, Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers, into coming back for another whirl. But their losses weren't anywhere near enough to begin to explain a 20-loss season in Chapel Hill.

Obviously, Doherty was in big trouble, and he was going to have to have a HUGE third year to have a chance to survive, and he didn't. Doherty's third and final season, 2002-03, saw the Tar Heels finish with a 19-16 overall record (counting two NIT victories) and only 6-10 in the ACC.

It initially looked like Doherty might turn things around, after he beat Williams' Kansas team, at the true neutral court of Madison Square Garden in the preseason NIT, in a stunning 11-point upset of the #2 Jayhawks, and then beat Stanford by 17 two days later. The Tar Heels made a brief return to the Top 25 as a result. But reality soon set in. The signature embarrassment of the year came on Dec. 27, losing to Iona (not Iowa, Iona) by .nine at MSG.

After starting the season 11-5, even including the loss to the Gaels, and 2-2 ACC, the bottom fell out, as the Tar Heels promptly lost five straight conference games, including blowouts at Maryland and Georgia Tech, falling out of NCAA consideration at 11-10, 2-7 ACC, and rendering Doherty a dead man walking, so to speak. It hadn't helped that Sean May had broken his foot and ultimately missed the entire ACC part of the season. They would scuffle to a 6-10 conference mark and be off the bubble.

The one bone that the basketball gods threw to Doherty, was permitting him to beat Duke at home, which he hadn't yet done, in what would turn out to be his final home game as head coach. Doherty finally led the Tar Heels to a home victory over their archrivals, beating the heavily favored #9 Blue Devils at the DeanDome in the regular-season finale. At 6-10 in the ACC, Carolina was going to have to win the conference tournament to get into the field, and to nobody's surprise it didn't happen. The Tar Heels did manage to upset #14 Maryland in the quarterfinals, but Doherty's fate was sealed when Duke won the rubber game in the semifinals, relegating the Tar Heels to the NIT for the first time in many, many years.

In equally unsurprising fashion, the long-anticipated Grim Reaper made a Chapel Hill pit stop for Doherty's head in March 2003, immediately after Carolina had been ousted from the NIT, following a pair of victories. His final game was a five point home NIT loss to Georgetown in the third round.. Unfortunately for him, Doherty's legacy was to become synonymous with phrases such as "in over his head" and "Thank God that's over." (Ironically, his name just recently resurfaced in the search to replace former Villanova coach Steve Lappas, newly fired at Massachusetts, but it was officially announced that he's no longer a candidate.)

Doherty had actively recruited Jason Fraser, and according to a poster on, the following took place:

Fraser apparently had been quoted saying something to the effect that he wasn't sure where he'd end up but when it did, it would "hit him like a ton of bricks". The next day, Fraser opened a package from UNC with a brick in it. (Fraser didn't think it was funny.) In retrospect, and not just because of the brick incident, I doubt that Fraser is sorry that he didn't attach his future to the U.S.S. Doherty in Chapel Hill.

But don't shed any tears for Matt Doherty. When he was hired, he signed a six-year deal with a base salary of $855,000, which undoubtedly didn't include income from his shoe deal, his UNC basketball camps, his TV/radio shows, and endorsements (although after a 8-20 season they were probably pretty hard to come by). So the buyout package for the three remaining years of his contract has softened the blow. UNC officially announced his buyout as $337,500, including $150,000 for the UNC camps he wouldn't be staging.

As a parting gift to UNC, for his very generous buyout, Doherty had left the cupboard pretty full for his old mentor, Williams. I generally don't follow recruiting closely, but I specifically remember that the year Jay Wright signed the Fab Four, that the 'Nova class was considered one of the top three nationally, along with Duke and Carolina. The recruiting class was, at least in the eyes of the media, considered as a possibly saving grace for Doherty that might buy him at least another year at the helm in Chapel Hill.

Which, in retrospect, was silly. This is North Carolina we're talking about. It doesn't take tremendous recruiting acumen to recruit to Chapel Hill, the way it would to get players to come to, let's say, Providence (where despite its fine academic reputation, fun city, and Big East affiliation, it's cold and there's no on-campus arena). It's not unreasonable for Carolina - at least for $855,000 a year, plus perks - to expect a coach to be able to recruit and win at the same time.

Check out Parts 2 and 3 of the Preview....

Go Wildcats!