Thursday, March 24, 2005

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...

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