What The UNC Men’s Team Must Do to Win the 2008 NCAA Tournament

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.) 

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The Legend of Quentin Thomas Grows By the Day

UNC 92, Virginia Tech 53, blah blah blah. Q dunked! TWICE!

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Keep this in mind: Quentin Thomas has run the point for Carolina’s last five games, all in conference play. The Heels have been 4-1 in those games, with the sole loss coming against Duke, when Ellington and Green’s shooting went completely cold.

His stats for those five games: 36 points, 19 rebounds, 32 assists, 18 turnovers, 1.8 A/TO ratio. Greivis Vasquez, the ACC’s best healthy point guard right now, has an A/TO ratio of 1.7 over the same five game span. When you consider that Q was Roy’s third string point guard to begin the year, that’s pretty impressive.

We are about to leave one of the biggest injury storms to hit the Tar Heels in recent memory. As the clouds begin to clear up, this hobbling team is still 24-2, in the top 5, and in position to take a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And we have managed to do it one-deep at point guard, basketball’s most crucial position.

If this season ends with the Tar Heels at the top, we all have Quentin Thomas to thank for helping them get there.

An (Ir)rational Assessment of That UNC-Duke Loss

Perhaps I can be rational about the result of this game at some point. But not yet.

First things first, let’s get this out of the way: Quentin Thomas did not lose this game. It may have been a completely different offense without Lawson on the floor, there were several stretches in which he struggled. However, there were many other points of failure points in that game, any of which could have won the game had they been corrected.

For example: Wayne Ellington and Danny Green combined to shoot 2 for 153. The statisticians began to feel sorry for them and stopped tracking their misses, only writing down “2-24”. True story. Below, a visual representation of Wayne and Danny’s shooting nights, respectively.

 

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It was expected that without Lawson on the floor, Carolina could not play their transition game. When forced into a halfcourt team against a halfcourt press, running effective screens becomes crucial. I did not see the Heels run effective screens against Duke, which I think led to a lot of turnovers and low-percentage shots.

Deon Thompson played like a beast for the first five minutes of the game. Then he seemed to become unfocused and devolved into the human fouling machine, fouling out after just 18 minutes. For lack of a better expression, he was the black Shavlik Randolph.

Duke is very effective in playing with the human psyche. When you see a Duke player driving he lane. a defender’s first instinct is always to help out. This plays right into their game, as this leaves plenty of Blue Devils open for threes. Coach K has been using this strategy for years, yet few teams are ever disciplined enough to override their instincts and and defend the perimeter no matter what happens inside. Carolina was no exception on Wednesday night. Credit is due to Duke for running a system so well, but Carolina needs to get better on defense.

This bears repeating: when Marcus Ginyard and Quentin Thomas account for 1/3rd of your offense, you’re in trouble.

There is absolutely no need to panic about the result of this game. Remember this: Duke played perhaps their best game all year, and Carolina obviously played a bad game, severely shorthanded at basketball most crucial position…and yet it was a two possession game after 39 minutes and 5 seconds. I don’t know what that says about Duke, but it shows that, with Lawson in the lineup, this team is still a national championship contender. Unless, of course, we lose to Clemson on Sunday. I would hate for this to be the team that ended the streak.

And finally: I don’t care what you think, this is funny.

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UNC 84, FSU 73 (OT): The Game in Pictures and Monosyllabic Exclamations

 WARNING: Includes at least one expletive. All pictures from AP/Phil Coale and IC/Jim Hawkins.

ACT I: Lawson Injures Ankle

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NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Act II: Quentin Thomas Steps Up

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QYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Act III:UNC Squanders 8 Point Lead With 2 Minutes Left; No Discernible Adjustments Made

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WWWWWHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTT?!?!?

ACT IV: Ryan Reid Hits Game Tying Shot

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FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!

ACT V: Hansbrough Takes over in Overtime

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YEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!

All-Time Winningest Tar Heel: Quentin Thomas?

You read that right. The UNC basketball class of 2008 has enjoyed a level of success at Carolina not seen in a long time with 104 victories in the past 3+ season. Of the two scholarship players who began playing for Roy Williams in the 2004-2005 season, only Quentin Thomas remains on the team as a senior. The current record for most games won by a Tar Heel player over a four year career is 117; the record is held by three players, including Matt Doherty. What this means is that if the Heels manage to win 14 of their remaining games in the regular season, ACC Tournament, and ACC Tournament, Quentin Thomas will stand alone as the winningest Tar Heel of all time. Not a bad honor for a career 8.3 minutes per game player.

As you may or may not be aware, I’ve been a huge fan of Q over the last couple of seasons, so I’m rooting for him to get the record.

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UNC vs. Penn Live Blog

This is obviously not the same Penn team who won the Ivy League for the last two years (most notably, without Matt Zoeller and Ibrahim Jaaber). However, the Palestra is one of the toughest places to play in college basketball, and it will be absolutely raucous tonight.

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7:05 pm: 4-4. Ty Lawson is back in the starting lineup today. He definitely seems to be playing at full speed.

7:08 pm: 6-4, UNC. Hansbrough hits two free throws to give UNC the lead, but Penn is playing some good defense right now. On the latest possession they trapped Lawson in a corner, and forced an offensive foul.

7:09 pm: 9-6, UNC. Penn is getting their baskets by forcing a fast pace. The problem for them is that it almost always results in a quick basket for the Tar Heels, whose strength is the transition game.

7:10 pm: 9-9. Bernardini has all 9 points for the Quakers, and he hits the first three-pointer of the game to tie.

7:12 pm: 13-9, UNC. Hansbrough fights for second and third chances at the basket, finally charging inside for an easy dunk to take the lead. Thompson follows with a basket off of a Penn turnover on the next possession.

7:15 pm: The Quakers’ turnover woes continues, as Qyooooooooo!!! gets the steal, draws a foul, and hits his free throws. 17-11, UNC.

7:16 pm: 21-13, UNC. The Tar Heels are scoring almost at will in transition, and they force Penn to take a timeout. Deon Thompson continues to impress in this 4 game road swing.

7:18 pm: 23-15, UNC. Hansbrough scores on the alley-oop. He has 11 points already in this game on 4-4 shooting.

7:19 pm: Ty Lawson is called for another offensive foul, and may have to hit the bench with foul trouble eight minutes into this game.

7:22 pm: Tar Heel fans travel well. Nearly half of the fans in the Palestra is wearing Carolina Blue.

7:23 pm: 25-19, UNC. Tyler scores again, but they’ve now committed their 5th turnover of the game. UNC’s mistakes are keeping the Quakers in the game, as Penn has been able to take advantage of those miscues.

7;25 pm: 27-22, UNC. Our guards are not defending a the perimeter well, and Penn has made them pay. A three-pointer brings the Quakers to within five.

7:28 pm: Heading into the TV timeout, neither team has been shooting the ball well in the last few minutes. Penn has done a good job defensively, keeping every scorer except Hansbrough and Danny Green at bay.

7:31 pm: 29-26, UNC. The Quakers are getting baskets inside way too easily right now.

After a foul on Ellington, I can audibly hear our leaders of tomorrow chant “Bull—-!” in the Penn student section.

7:33 pm: 34-26, UNC. You can see how much more efficiently the Heels’ transition game is run with Lawson on the court instead of Frasor at point.

7:34 pm: 36-28, UNC. Ellington finally gets on the board, fighting for a basket inside.

7:35 pm: 38-30, UNC. Carolina still hasn’t been sealing off the defensive paint very well.

7:36 pm: 40-30, UNC. Hansbrough collects UNC’s 11th offensive rebound, and hits a jumper to give the Heels their first double digit lead…

7:37 pm: 40-32, UNC. …which they quickly relinquish on the other side of the court.

7:41 pm: 48-34, UNC. The Quakers are paying dearly for allowing the Heels to play their transition game. A backcourt steal opens the flood gates, as Danny Green continues to have a good game off the bench.

7:45 pm: 48-37, UNC. Bernardini can;t be stopped; he’s 8-9 from the field in the first half.

7:46 pm: Hansbrough hits an inside shot to end the first half. UNC leads, 50-37 at halftime. The Tar Heels are definitely playing their transition game in this game, but some unwarranted mistakes, in particular a few spurts of lax defense, have helped to keep the quakers in it. If they can just clamp down on the inside, they should be able to hold a comfortable lead in the second half. Expect Penn to to eventually run out of gas, unless they can force a halfcourt game.

8:03 pm: 54-37, UNC. Penn simply does not have an answer for Tyler Hansbrough. But you probably knew that already.

8:04 pm: 57-41, UNC. Bernardini keeps blowing past Ginyard on these backdoor cuts. He need to play better in the perimeter if the Tar Heels want to reduce the Quakers’ 57% FG shooting from the first half.

8:07 pm: The Heels’ main saving gracs on defense has been turnovers. Lawson’s steal, the 11th for Carolina tonight, gives them a 20 point lead. 63-43, UNC.

8:08 pm: 65-43, UNC. If Penn gets blown out tonight, it will be in part because they have allowed the Heels to get a huge amount of offensive rebounds and second chances.

8:12 pm: 67-43, UNC. Marcus Ginyard is having a tough night. Even when he has a dunk in his sights, he missed completely. Fortunately for him, Hansbrough was there to clean up. Tyler has 22 points and 7 rebounds.

8:16 pm: 69-48, UNC. Tyler Bernardini hits a three. He now has 21 points for the Quakers.

8:19 pm: 73-48, UNC. Ellington is finally heating up, and the Heels now seem to have an insurmountable lead.

8:23 pm: 75-52, UNC. Qyoooooooooo with the assist.

8:25 pm: 77-53, UNC. No one should leave Tyler that open in transition. He will kill you every time.

8:29 pm: 79-55, UNC. Tyler Bernardini continues to score at will from everywhere on the court. I still don’t have an explanation as to why the UNC defense is letting him have such a huge night.

8:33 pm: 86-57, UNC. Believe it or not, tonight’s game marks the first time that Tyler Hansbrough has recorded three consecutive double-doubles in his UNC career. Particularly impressive is that all three have come on the road (@ Ohio State, Kentucky, and Penn).

8:40 pm: 91-58, UNC. Danny Green’s three pointer rattles in, as he has 19 for the game. UNC has shot 75% from the field in the second half.

8:40 pm: 93-58, UNC. Alex Stepheson gets his first basket of the game. Where has he been all night?

8:45 pm: 101-65, UNC. Qyoooooooooooooo!!! puts the Heels in triple digits.

8:47 pm: 104-65, UNC. Will Graves hits a three pointer, as this game is getting very ugly for Penn.

8:51 pm: 106-65, UNC. Mike Copeland gets an easy basket inside, as all of UNC’s reserves are on the court for the final two minutes.

8:54 pm: The game officially ends, as UNC wins, 106-71. Aside from not being able to stop Tyler Bernardini, the Tar heels played very good basketball, particularly early in the second half to put the game away. The Tar Heels won’t play again until after final exams here in Chapel Hill, when they play at Rutgers on December 16th. Carolina has made it through the difficult part of their non-conference schedule, and are unlikely to be tested again until their ACC opener against the Clemson Tigers on January 6th.

UNC vs. Ohio St. Live Blog: Big Ten-ACC Challenge

Tonight, the Tar Heels play the first of two true road tests this week, as they face the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus tonight as part of the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Obviously, this isn’t the same Buckeyes team who played in the Final Four last year (most notably without Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Jr., Daequan Cook, and Ron Lewis), and whom UNC beat 98-89 last year in Chapel Hill; however, they bring some star freshmen players such as center Kosta Koufos, and bring back talented upperclassmen like point guard Jamar Butler and forward Othello Hunter. Against a inconsistent Tar Heels squad, Carolina needs to be on upset alert tonight.

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9:34 pm: 13-13. Sorry…some tchnical difficulties at the worst possible time. But we’re up and running.

Ellington is left open for a three to give UNC a 16-13 lead.

9:36 pm: 18-13, UNC. Deon Thompson gets an easy shot inside, forcing Ohio State to take a timeout. After UNC started slow, they have outscored the Buckeyes 12-4.

9:38 pm: Michigan State clobbered NC State tonight. Either the Spartans are scary good this year, or NC State was a bit overhyped this year. I think this may be an aberration, but it certainly looks like the Wolfpack aren’t as effective a team without Engin Atsur.

9:41 pm: Hansbrough is struggling on offense to start the game. The Buckeyes have done a good job of keeping him in check.

9:42 pm: 18-15, UNC. After a Butler layup, Koufos get two straight blocks on UNC shots, the second one on Hansbrough.

9:43 pm: 18-17, UNC. How is Othello Hunter left that open inside?

9:44 pm: 21-20, UNC. Ellington hits the three, but the Buckeyes respond immediately.

9:45 pm: 23-21, OSU. Diebler hits a three from what looked like 27 feet out. A huge momentum swing, as the Buckeyes take back the lead.

9:51 pm: 27-23, UNC. Koufos spent time on the bench, and the Heels took advantage. Ellington hits a floater in the lane to take the lead, and then Hansbrough dunks over Hunter to give UNC a four point lead.

9:53 pm: 27-26, UNC. Diebler hits another open three. He’s caught fire tonight.

9:54 pm: Butler blows by Ellington, and he gets the layup and the foul. 29-27, OSU.

9:55 pm: A great pass to hansbrough, who finishes with authority. 29-29.

9:56 pm: Insane. Diebler starts 2-24 from 3 to start the season, and he decides to end his slump against us. his buzzer-beater off the glass gives Ohio State a 32-29 lead at halftime. UNC has not been running at their normally fast pace, and they’ve een taking bad shots. No Ty Lawson at point guard always hurts, but no one outside of Hansbrough and Ellington is getting much of anything done on offense. To win in the second half, Someone else needs to come up big on offense, the Heels need to improve their rebounding, and someone has to guard Diebler at all times.

10:13 pm: The second half starts, as Ohio State’s defense continues to confuse the Tar Heels.

10:14 pm: Ginyard hits a floater in the paint, but Jamar Butler hits a three on the other end.

10:15 pm: Where is Quentin Thomas? In the absence of Lawson, He’s much better at running the transition than Frasor.

10:16 pm: Ellington falls hard on the floor, and he’s shaken up.

The good about the Ohio State Student section: their unique way of distracting the free throw shooter.

The bad about the Ohio State student section: their chants. “YOU-CAN’T DO-THAT!” clap-clap-clapclapclap…

10:19 pm: Hansbrough ties the game at 35 with a three point play.

10:19 pm: Koufos hits his first shot of the game to take a 39-37 lead, but Ginyard ties the game 10 seconds later.

The Buckeyes still aren’t allowing the Tar heels to play their transition game.

10:23 pm: What a steal by Ellington, who gets it to Q, who finds Ginyard for the layup and the foul. See? Quentin Thomas enters the game, and the pace picks up immediately.

10:24 pm: Othello Hunter with a big block on Danny Green. 42-39, UNC.

10:26 pm: What was Green thinking throwing that pass?

Carolina has some serious issues on the defensive boards. They just gave Ohio State four different opportunities in the paint, and now Hunter is at the line.

10:28 pm: Deon Thompson gets a huge dunk on the offensive rebound. Where has he been all game?

Ellington hits a three pointer off the gall on the next possession to make it 47-40, UNC.

10:31 pm: Thompson gets another offensive rebound, and he gets a shot off of the glass. UNC now has a 49-40 lead, the biggest margin of the game.

10:35 pm: Thompson hits another one, this time a mid-range jumper. He’s finally come into his own tonight.

10:36 pm: Deon gets another defensive rebound, and then he hits a hook jumper to give UNC a double digit lead. Thompson now has 12 points and 5 rebounds, as the Tar Heels may have figured out this zone.

10;38 pm: Now it’s the Tar heels defense that’ seems to be giving the Buckeyes fits, but it looks like no one on the court outside of Thompson can hit their shots right now.

10:40 pm: Or, maybe not. Deon’s free throws were ugg-lee, and we’re still at 53-42 with less than 8 minutes left.

10:44 pm: Why wasn’t there anyone behind Hansbrough for him to dump the ball and restart the offense.

10:45 pm: Ellington hits a nice jumper on the right side. 55-43, UNC, as absolutely no shots are falling for Ohio State.

10:43 pm: Hansbrough with the tough shot in the middle. He has 13 points and 10 rebounds, and the Heels have a 14 point lead with less than 6 minutes left.

10:47 pm: Ohio State’s drought is broken by–guess who?–Jon Diebler. 57-46, UNC.

10:48 pm: Lighty hits a three, Diebler gets a dunk, and suddenly the Buckeyes are within 6, getting 8 points in 54 seconds, but who cares? I just found out that Roy Williams is a Yankees fan! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

10:49 pm: Thompson stops the bleeding, but Othello Hunter scores on a putback. 59-53, UNC, with 3:52 left. How did the Heels let Ohio State back into this game so quickly.

10:53 pm: The Heels do nothing for 30 seconds, and then Ellington simply drains the three with a guy in his face. 62-53, UNC.

10:54 pm: Uh-oh. Hansbrough missed his last three free throws. Is he out of gas?

10:56 pm: Diebler with the tough dunk, but he lands awkwardly on his elbow. UNC takes advantage on the other end with an easy shot. 64-55, UNC.

10:57 pm: Inside the paint, UNC and OSU have been playing the last few minutes like a football game rather than a basketball game.

10:59 pm: 64-55, UNC, 35 seconds left. After Diebler misses a three, Ellington gets a rebound, and that should about seal this game.

11:01 pm: The game is over, and UNC wins, 66-55. Aside from the quick 10-2 run with about 5-6 minutes left, Ohio State could not get anything done on offense in the second half. The Tar heels dominated the end of the game, outscoring them 28-11 until the Buckeyes run. Ellington and Thompson really stepped up, which they will need to do throughout the season for Carolina to live up to expectations. Overall, this was an important road win for the Tar Heels as they develop throughout the season.