Merry Basketball Christmas to all this Good Friday. I would be in a much more celebratory mood today had Belmont performed the upset of upsets over Duke. Give credit to Gerald Henderson, he wouldn’t let the Blue Devils lose that game. But I digress.
Last year’s North Carolina team was a testament to the importance of experience. The Heels of 2006-2007 was perhaps the deepest, most talented squad ever to grace Chapel Hill with its presence. Just look at this lineup:
F-Tyler Hansbrough, Sophomore
F-Brandan Wright, Freshman
F-Deon Thompson, Freshman
F-Alex Stepheson, Freshman
F-Rayshawn Terry, Senior
G/F-Danny Green, Sophomore
G/F-Marcus Ginyard, Sophomore
G-Wayne Ellington, Freshman
G-Wes Miller, Senior
G-Ty Lawson, Freshman
G-Bobby Frasor, Sophomore
G-Quentin Thomas, Junior
And that’s just the regular rotation. Nobody played more than 30 minutes a game, everyone had fresh legs, and when their heads were in the game they could run just about any college team in America into the ground and out of the building. Every one of these twelve players would be either starters or important bench players at most other schools. In Chapel Hill, they were some kind of Baby Blue Voltron.
Alas, therein lay their weakness. Nine of the 12 players in the regular rotation were underclassmen, Q might as well have been an underclassmen, and only Miller and Terry had any kind of starting experience, and they were 5th and 8th options in our offense, respectively. This inexperience led them to lose quite a few games they had no business losing, and they squandered a few close leads. The most glaring example was the Georgetown game, where they went the final seven or eight minutes without scoring a field goal. On defense, they allowed the Hoyas to shoot over 70% from the field in that same span. Georgetown went on to lose in overtime, and I may have overreacted a bit. I’m pretty sure I scared my non-fan neighbors by screaming “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” to the television at the top of my lungs (I had made the mistake of leaving my windows open that day; it was 68 degrees, get off my case).
I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yes, this year’s tournament. So how do we avoid…that?
Win close games. This characteristic of a team tends to come with experience. Carolina is a much more experienced and focused team this year, if a bit more shorthanded. With graduation (Terry and Miller), NBA eligibility (Wright), injury (Frasor) and in lieu of incoming freshmen, our rotation is now 8-deep (with a bit of Will Graves and Mike Copeland peppered in). The backcourt is much more mature, and it shows. The close losses of last year have turned into close victories, as UNC’s players kept focus and clamped down on their opponent when they absolutely needed. Don’t expect a Georgetown-like late collapse this year. If anything, expect the implosion to happen early. Which reminds me…
Have your head in the game for all 40 minutes. If the Heels ever let a game mentally get away from them, it’s usually in the early going. Maryland jumped out to a double-digit first half lead, and the Heels never quite got into their rhythm, leading to their only loss of the season with Lawson in the lineup. Against Clemson (twice) and Georgia Tech the Heels let their opponents get ahead with poor execution before taking the game in the final seconds. And I don’t need to tell you what happened in Chestnut Hill. The Heels will keep it close no matter who they’re playing; if they stay focused for 40 minutes, they should be able to win all of their games.
Tyler Hansbrough must get to the line. That may sound like an easy concept, as he already holds the UNC and ACC career records for free throw attempts, and free throw shhoting usually accounts for about a third of his offense. Against Duke on March 8th, however, Duke managed to go the entire game wothout putting Hansbrough on the line once. You can bet that every prospective Carolina opponent will be poring over that game to try to reduce his trips to the stripes, and take 6-8 points out of UNC’s offensive production.
The perimeter shooting cannot go cold. In Carolina’s loss to Duke, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington were a combined 4-24 shooting, including 1-11 from three. In big games down the stretch, Roy needs to be able to count on them for about 20-25 points.
Point guard play. We’re still not 100% sure that Ty Lawson’s ankle is completely healed. Q has really stepped up for the Heels both in Lawson’s absence and coming off the bench when he came back. Q will need to continue that into the tournament.
Congratulations to the Tar Heels for their great season so far, and best of luck to them staring tonight against Mount St. Mary’s. Billy Packer following our every move aside, it’s going to be a fun ride.
(apologies for the layoff. Life got in the way during the ACC Tournament, but THM back just in time.)