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!

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