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 CarolinaBlue.com 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 cdimitri1@yahoo.com).

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, ESPN.com 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 CarolinaBlue.com, 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!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Later, 'Gators! Villanova in First Sweet 16 since 1988!!! (Part 2)

To the Wildcat faithful-

Some superlatives from the NCAA tournament:

Villanova is the only one of the five Catholic schools in the field (Boston College, Creighton, Gonzaga, and St. Mary's were the others) to survive to the Sweet 16. Along with Duke, it is one of only two private schools remaining as well (and the only one with an endowment of less than several billion dollars). (Louisville, despite the name - it sounds Catholic, with a French name, after a city - is actually a public school.) It is a great story in what has already been a blissfully volatile tournament, one in which fully half of the top 16 seeds didn't play themselves into the Sweet 16, including the defending national champion Huskies and fashionable tournament-pool selection Wake Forest, the personal choice of ESPN.com's Andy Katz, who probably knew more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams than anyone on earth.

Most of you are undoubtedly familiar with "The Crocodile Hunter" (and occasional 'Gator Hunter) Steve Irwin, the hyperkinetic, self-educated Australian zoo proprietor/conservationist. Irwin is famous for his highly entertaining Discovery Channel/Animal Planet cable show, frequent "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" appearances (and occasional reckless child endangerment), where he routinely enters hand-to-hand combat with the great cold-blooded predators of the wild. (BTW - in a remarkable bit of bravado, Irwin claims that should he ever encounter a croc who is smarter than he is, and thus has a bit of bad luck while sticking his head into its "giant, gaping jaws", the camera crew has standing orders to keep the film rolling to record Irwin's fate for posterity.)

Well, the Wildcats - with their own NCAA lives at stake yesterday - made Irwin look like a rank, unpolished amateur when it comes to handling 'Gators. "CRI-KEY!!!!!" would have been Irwin's likely reaction, had he been in Nashville yesterday. "That Jason Fraser manhandled 'ose powerful 'Gators, mate, wit' their RARE recruiting spec'mens!! Watch Kigh-ull Lowry, slash 'is way into the 'Gators' razuh-shahp, interiuh defense in the paint! Wasn't that game a beauty!"

The Game Itself

Tip-time was scheduled for 2:15 PM EST, but viewers in the Philadelphia area (and thus anywhere in the world, as Philadelphia was obviously, along with Florida, one of the two primary markets for this game) missed the first 1:25 of Villanova/Florida, since NC State's upset of Connecticut ran long and was competitive down the stretch. Usually this would be a violation of CBS' announced policy of not depriving a game's primary markets of the tip-off of their game, regardless of what is going on in other games around the country. However, I actually wouldn't fault CBS too much for that, as the game was of interest to 'Nova fans for two reasons. One was the fact that it was a Big East rival, the other was that it's a game in 'Nova's bracket, as the winner would be a potential Elite Eight opponent.

After Sumpter went down the first time, he walked off the floor, as the cameras showed Sumpter's anxious family looking on.

Villanova dominated play in the early going, racing out to a 23-10 lead. Florida's next basket finally terminated a six minute dry spell for them, leading Jay Wright to call a timeout, which came at 9:18. The Wildcats led 23-13, had outshot the Gators 50%-33%, had and had outrebounded them 13-5, including 5-0 on the offensive end. Sumpter had made all three of his shots for his eight points - but it would be all he would score, both Sunday and apparently now for the rest of the 2005 tournament.

At the 8:25 mark, he got hurt again, with the score 25-15 'Nova. Florida worked the ball inside to Al Horford, who while pivoting to the hoop, seemed to just lightly bang into Sumpter (if he even collided with him at all - it's hard to tell on the tape because it doesn't zoom in.) But when Horford drew near him, Sumpter immediately toppled over like a statue falling off its pedestal. However, he got up almost immediately, after being attended to by the training staff, and it did not initially look serious. But Sumpter wouldn't return to action for the rest of the day.

Shortly afterward, Walsh committed a borderline intentional foul, which was not called as such. Chasing from behind, Walsh tried to swat Lowry atop his head, like a knight whacking his enemy with a broadsword, as Lowry went up on a breakaway. With the shot dropping anyway, making it 29-15, it triggered the under-8 timeout. Given the NCAA's admirable crackdown on fouls in that situation, should have been ruled intentional. Situations like that are what the rule is DESIGNED to prevent. You can't just go after somebody's head like that when they're up in the air, from behind. There was no meaningful effort on Walsh's part to play the ball. Frustration may have played a role. At that point, 'Nova already had four steals and five deflections, according to a CBS graphic, while Walsh was scoreless.

At 4:55, there was Villanova's best play of the game: a sweet assist leading to a dunk, from the two bench stars, Lowry to Fraser, leading Bill Raftery to exclaim, "left some lingerie on the deck!" It lifted 'Nova's lead to 35-23. At 3:47, Verne Lundquist gave Donovan a backhanded compliment on his recruiting successes: "David Lee, the senior out of St. Louis, #24, highly recruited as a McDonald's All-American, said one reason he chose Florida, over Duke or North Carolina, was because of Billy Donovan 's recruiting of him. He though if Donovan was that persistent as a coach, to equal his persistence as a recruiter, he would work hard to make David Lee a better basketball player." Lee had just scored Florida's last 10 points, and was singlehandedly keeping the Gators in the game, but there was a subtle subtext to the comment, discussed earlier in the article.

At halftime, 'Nova led 39-32, and it could have been higher if a defensive lapse hadn't permitted Florida's reserve freshman Taurean Green to nail a deep three with 7 seconds to go.

It was announced by Lundquist and Raftery, when play resumed, that they had been told that Sumpter had an injured left knee and wouldn't be back. Florida began to build some momentum, the only time they did all day. The 'Gators got to within 39-38 less than 90 seconds into the second half. But Fraser converted an "and-one", boosting it back to 42-38, and 'Nova never yielded the lead. Walsh finally got rolling, draining a three at 16:16 to pull Florida within one at 44-43, his first field goal. Looking at the halftime numbers,

At intermission, Lee had 16 of Florida's 32 points and they could ill-afford to lose him, which became a very real possibility when he picked up his third foul at the 15:56 mark, triggering the under-16 timeout with 'Nova still holding the lead, 44-43. With Florida back in the game, Donovan had no choice but to remove Lee, if only for a minute or so.


In retrospect, Lee's third foul was the turning point. Florida probably would have lost today's game in any event, but Lee's third foul pretty much ended their hopes, even though Donovan put him back in again after a little while, at 14:11. It broke their run. Without Lee, Florida's offense ground to a screeching halt. And even when he came back in, when Horford picked up his own third foul, the momentum had been broken and Florida could never regain it. How bad was it? From the moment Lee picked up his third foul, Florida didn't score a single point for over SEVEN minutes, and by then, the Wildcats - and Florida's season - were long gone. And saddled with fouls, Lee couldn't be as aggressive on either end. When he picked up his third foul, he had 18 points, after his third foul, he had - two. Walsh broke the drought with a triple, but it was way too late by then. Villanova had embarked on a 10-0 run which catapulted the Wildcats to a 53-42 lead - and into the Sweet 16.

In the midst of this run, Lundquist told a story about what had gone on at halftime:

The VU pep band had played "Rocky Top", the Tennessee fight song, which of course went over well with the local denizens at the game in Nashville. But it was a not-so-subtle dig at Florida, for whom the SEC rival Volunteers are the archrival in football, and the Florida fans "stood up and booed them". The rivalry was partially fueled by former UF coach Steve Spurrier, before his stint with the Washington Redskins. Spurrier, in a refreshing display of honesty, disregarded the usual polite, insincere diplomacy most coaches employ when discussing their rivals, acidly quipping, among other things, that due to Tennessee's visits to the also-ran Citrus Bowl, that "you can't spell Citrus without U-T." (Come to think of it, you can't spell "frequent upset" without UF, either...)

Coming out of a timeout, with 5:40 to play, UF started to press, trailing 62-54. 'Nova countered with four guards, plus Fraser, and while they had some trouble with it, they weathered it. At 5:19, Brewer was hit with a charge, and then Lee picked up his fourth foul guarding Fraser with 5:01 to play. Donovan yanked him, but he came back in shortly after, and then with 3:04 fouled out, ending whatever small chance the 'Gators had, trailing 67-58.

That was it. The rest was a victory lap. The two memorable plays in this stretch were Ray making an incredible catch of a wild inbounds pass from Nardi, which I remarked to the guy sitting behind me, "Was that Ray - 6-2 Ray - who caught that ball?' The guy laughed and said, "yeah, he's got some ups." The second was Lowry dribbling the ball while sitting down at midcourt, prompting Raftery to compare the skill to those the Harlem Globetrotters of his own day... CBS put up the stat of the day: 'Nova had just eight points in the paint against New Mexico, and put up 40 against Florida. The primary reason for the explosion in the lane, of course, was Jason Fraser.

On the biggest stage of his career, Jason Fraser finally showed the dominance that led him to be viewed as the top post prospect in America, when he was signed by Villanova earlier in the decade. Ironically, he was the centerpiece of the Fab Four recruiting class which also included Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye, all of whom have surpassed Fraser. The prevailing view back in 2002 was that Villanova was going to have a significant dilemma in the paint, when the "Amityville (NY) Horror" would leave the Main Line for NBA lucre after his sophomore season of 2003-04. 'Nova Nation would have been mildly surprised to learn that Fraser would still be here as a junior, but apoplectic to learn that injuries had dictated that he wouldn't even be in the starting lineup.

Obviously, it hasn't turned out that way. His chronic knee injuries have slowed his development, and downgraded Villanova's putative aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Fraser, to a battle cruiser coming off the bench. Reportedly, he's a very humble individual who has accepted his reduced status well, and does everything possible to help the team win, and at no time has that fact been more evident than today. It's a shame, because he seems like a nice guy, and was a good fit for Villanova's program as well.

Villanova's meandering in the NIT over the last two years, can largely be explained by the lack of an intimidating post presence that Fraser had been expected to provide. In four years, coach Jay Wright hasn't recruited any other post players (who would have been interested in coming here to sit behind Fraser?). The only exception was Chris Charles, Wright's first recruit after replacing Steve Lappas in 2001, a last-minute spring signing on whom Wright decided to take a flyer, prior to the landing of Fraser. And Charles is of very limited value as a replacement, because of his own health problems.

But when the true extent of Fraser's injuries either became known, OR when they began to initially decay under the increased stress of Big East basketball, the Wildcats had a very real problem on their hands, as they had to play small all the time. If the guards went cold, 'Nova got beat.

Fraser's stunning performance today was even more of a surprise, because he had not been much of a factor against New Mexico on Friday. Fraser played only 14 minutes, scoring two points and pulling down four rebounds against the Lobos. Because of the Lobos' small size and lack of dominant big man, Jay Wright went with a smaller, quicker lineup. Also, Villanova led during the entire game, and had to hold the ball and convert free throws down the stretch, and having Fraser's cast-bound hand on the floor wouldn't help matters. (Which is ironic, in light of how well he shot free throws Sunday.)

Fraser, when he's healthy, can be and is a dominant defensive player who owns the paint, and if he were healthy he undoubtedly would have a bright NBA future solely for that reason, even if he had no offensive skills at all. Unfortunately, Europe is likely his fate; if I were an NBA GM, I doubt that I'd want to risk millions of dollars on a player with chronic knee injuries, even if Fraser were to have a monster senior year. But stranger things have happened, with medical science.

So let's take a look at the numbers. For a change, I'll start with the bench, because they were the key to the victory.

Fraser's 21 points (on 5-9 shooting) and 15 rebounds were obviously awe-inspiring off the bench. Fraser virtually owned the paint in Nashville, going to the foul line no fewer than 17 times and converting 11 of them, good for a big man and particularly good for a guy with a cast.

Lowry's performance would have been the lead story, if not for Fraser's heroics. The freshman continues to impress, particularly since he still may not be fully recovered from a bout of stomach flu earlier this week. Lowry had 15 points, five rebounds and three steals, as well as creating matchup problems for Florida with his speed.

Role players Chris Charles and Marcus Austin made brief appearances to help out in the paint, with Will Sheridan in foul trouble. They didn't bring much to the table statistically, as they played six minutes they had one rebound, one blocked shot, and one steal, failing to score. But they were there to buy Jay Wright time, which they did well. That's why it's a TEAM sport. Charles and Austin did what they could today to help the team win, and they did it well.

Which is a good segue into my next point - giving credit to the practice players: Baker Dunleavy, the injured Michael Claxton, Tom Grace, and Ross Condon. On a glorious occasion, such as a Sweet 16 appearance, it's appropriate to give those guys some props. They aren't just there to fill out the bench on game days and to make cameo appearances at the end of blowouts. You need a minimum of ten guys to practice, even if nobody's injured (which someone always is) and those guys serve the team effectively by giving the rotation players sparring partners in practice. They often mimic the upcoming opponent's style as best they can. The fact that they don't play in competitive game situations, doesn't make their contributions to the team's success any less valid. By definition, only five guys can play at any one time, and the goal of a team sport such as basketball, is for all members of the team to do whatever they can to help the TEAM be successful, even if there is no direct glory for any particular individual.


Sumpter appeared well on his way to a huge game, scoring eight points and grabbing six boards early on, before his day was prematurely ended by two separate knee injuries.

Allan Ray needs to come home and figure out what happened to him in Nashville. Ray had a dismal performance in both games, yesterday he failed to make a field goal in six attempts, finishing with 7 points, all from the line, and three assists. Ray's typical offensive output will be sorely needed against Carolina, especially if Sumpter either isn't available or isn't 100%.

But Randy Foye picked up the slack for Foye, scoring 18 points and adding four rebounds and two steals.

Mike Nardi did what he needs to do - which is, run the point first, look for his shot later. He played 38 minutes and while he made only one of his six shots, finishing with three points, 'Nova doesn't really need him to score.

Finally, Will Sheridan sank into foul trouble, logging just 20 minutes due to four fouls. He didn't have much of an impact on the stat sheet, although he did play solid defense, finishing with four points and seven rebounds.

How about the 'Gators?

McDonald's All-American David Lee had a great overall game before fouling out. Lee had a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes. He also had a strong defensive game, finishing with three steals and three blocks. Lee's ouster near the end of the game was the final nail in the Gators' coffin.

Philadelphian Matt Walsh, a Holland (Bucks County) native who attended Germantown Academy (alma mater of Alvin Williams), finished in double figures with a dozen points, nine rebounds, and three assists. But Walsh did not have as an strong overall game as those numbers would indicate. He shot 4-13 from the floor and committed four turnovers. He didn't make a field goal at all until the second half. After fouling out, the head-banded Walsh looked every bit the picture of defeat, burying his head in his arms on the bench in a visual that practically screamed to CBS, "Put this shot in the "One Shining Moment" montage next week." Look for it.

Walsh was the one Gator who was well-known to Villanova's program, due to geography. Walsh had already committed to Florida, when Wright replaced Steve Lappas in the spring of 2001, but Wright made a last-ditch effort with him anyway, and they "know each other well", according to Florida's media notes.

As for Florida's other two McDonald's All-Americans, both had subpar games. Anthony Roberson, along with Lee and Walsh part of Florida's triumvirate on the offensive end, was dreadful, going 1-8 from the floor to finish with just five points in 26 minutes. Roberson had no impact at all, and Donovan probably reduced his minutes to try to get something going with a hotter hand. The other AA, swingman Corey Brewer, managed to score 11 points, but also committed four turnovers and didn't rebound (just one for the game in 28 minutes).

Al Horford, a second-line player forced into service earlier this season, because of an injury to projected starter Adrian Moss (who played three minutes) was eaten alive by Fraser in the paint, committing four fouls in 22 minutes and failing to score (although he did have five rebounds).

Three bench players combined for a respectable 17 points, but it wasn't enough to make a difference.

My own personal experience, redux

As I did on Friday, I watched the game in Jake Nevin Field House, on the big screen with a small assemblage of about 75 other fans, who eschewed the vibrancy and undoubtedly fun and buzz of watching it in a Main Line bar, in order to see the game on a huge screen with perfect volume and sight lines. Unfortunately, due to a quirk in the Christian calendar long predating the NCAA tournament, Easter falls early this year. This means that the Villanova students won't get the full benefit of the Sweet 16 experience, as the campus will be shut down for the Easter break during Villanova's game(s) this weekend. For me, it also means no big screen in Nevin, so I will have to scout out an alternative site.

Audrey Kline, a senior from Lebanon, Pa., won herself a full-sized backyard basketball hoop set by volunteering to lead the crowd in the VU fight song, "V for Villanova". (Read the back of your "V" shirts to learn the words.) She said that as a former cheerleader, it wasn't too tough. At halftime, despite Sumpter's absence, Kline was not concerned about Villanova advancing to the Sweet 16, stating confidently (and in prescient terms): "We're going to win." Kline knows basketball well, praising the team for its frontcourt play, in Sumpter's absence: "I'm glad that we're going inside, and not relying on the perimeter, establishing dominance in the paint." Kline was there watching the game with her boyfriend, senior Joe Farrell of Medford, N.J. (if memory serves me correctly, the hometown of late-'90s star Malik Allen). Farrell was equally enthused about the Wildcats' chances: "I love how dynamic our team can be...we have an excellent perimeter game, and as we are proving today, we can play inside as well..." Farrell was also excited about the fact that the Wildcats lose no players of consequence and will return six seniors next year: "I can't wait to see our boys come back next year and do it all over again."

The mood, naturally, was a lot more upbeat than it was on Friday, when the collective feeling could be best described as a sigh of relief. There was a lot of enthusiastic cheering and clapping, throughout. What's really surprising - and which gives me some hope for Friday night - is how easy a time the 'Cats had of it. Villanova made pretty short work of Florida, a higher seed, defeating them by 11 points and pulling away midway through the second half. And they did it largely (about three-quarters of the game) without Sumpter, arguably their best player and certainly one of the top two. Without him, Villanova is not likely to defeat Carolina, let alone reach the Final Four, but it certainly looks a lot more feasible than it did back in mid-January, prior to the victory over Kansas. I would not be raising ANY white flags due to Sumpter's injury. Think of it this way...

Villanova only needs to be one point better than Carolina on a neutral floor, with a de facto home court advantage for 40 minutes. It wouldn't require any miracles for that to take place. Just good solid basketball.

I am in the midst of preparing the Ultimate Guide to Villanova/North Carolina, which will appear as soon as it's ready. Thanks to the helpful folks at the UNC Sports Information office, who are sending me a media guide, which is in transit from Chapel Hill as I write this.