Monday, November 23, 2009

Nothing could be finer...

This year may be the most fun I've had as a Carolina sports fan, which works out well as it is my last year here as an undergraduate. This may seem surprisingly optimistic in the wake UNC's basketball team dropping out of the top 10 after a convincing defeat to Syracuse in the Coaches versus Cancer Finals, however I personally am loving this year both in basketball and football.

I'll get back to why this basketball season in so fun in a bit, but let me first start out with the football team. A couple months back after a brutal loss to UVA at Kenan Stadium I wrote a post titled "Same Old Tar Heel Football" bemoaning the ineptitude of those both calling and executing the offense. Two weeks later I was about ready to close the book on the football season after a late game meltdown against Florida State in front of a packed Kenan Stadium crowd on the national stage of Thursday night. The chances of a bowl bid looked grim and the prospect of returning to the top 25 seemed comical.

Fast forward one month and the Heels are on a 4 game winning streak taking down ranked Virginia Tech on the road and ranked Miami at home, also taking down an upstart Duke team at home and a solid Boston College on the road. The defense has emerged as one of the best in the country and the best in the ACC. With playmakers at all levels (Quinn, Wilson, Austin, Thomas on the line, Sturdivant and Carter at linebacker, and Duenta Willams and Burney in the secondary) the defense has few weakness and has been essential in forcing and capitalizing on turnovers that fueled the four game win streak. In the past two games the defense has scored an astounding four touchdowns and set up several more scores. In fact this year's Tar Heels team has become only the second football team that has been more entertaining to watch on defense than on offense (the first was last year's Steelers).

The offense has still been unimpressive and is clearly what is holding the team back from being even better. With even a marginally better unit the Heels may have only one loss (to GT) and be a top 10 team. All that said the offense has taken steps with Ryan Houston getting more carries to to Draughn's injury and Pinalto returning to the field. Next year with several high rated OL recruits and a more experienced platoon of receivers, the Heels should improve on offense (especially if someone can take over for Yates). The real question will be if the juniors on the defense will choose to come back for another year. Bruce Carter has already announced that he would return and if he can convince fellow classmates Marvin Austin, Duenta Williams, Kendric Burney, and Quan Sturdivant to join him the defense could be frighteningly good next season.

What remains for the team will be a good test to see if they are ready to be a legitimate top 25 team. When the team has flirted with being ranked in the past couple years they have disappointed and not lived up to their ranking. If the Tar Heels can go and get a win in Raleigh against a state team they should beat on paper then win their bowl game they will not only have backed up their ranking but will finish with double digit wins for the first time in a while. Either way Sunday's game will be great to watch in HD on a brand new 52' TV. Anyone who says that the basketball team is the only team that matters in UNC is way off base right now and its not entirely inconceivable that the football team could finish the year ranked higher than the basketball squad (though hopefully not).

Speaking of the basketball team, the convincing loss to Syracuse at Madison Square Garden showed this team to be inexperienced and perhaps finally served as a wake up call to those basking in the glory of last season's title. The team is raw, makes bad decisions, and despite a high level of talent can get outplayed by more disciplined team. There are going to be some pretty ugly losses this season to go along with the wins. And you know what... I LOVE IT. Since the day in June 2008 when Ellington, Lawson, and Green announced they would come back there was a sense of pressure on all the Carolina fans (and probably much moreso the players) that Carolina HAD to win the title. The season would be a failure otherwise.

While they did and put together a great season I found myself looking forward to this year. I don't know how many times I told my friends "If we can win it all this year, next year is going to be so much fun." And so far it has been. In place of stalwarts like Lawson, Green, Ellington, and Hansbrough, who we expected to show up and play at a high level every night, we have Henson, Strickland, Drew, and Zeller. The only players on the team who were expected to give a solid contribution every game were Thompson, Ginyard, and Davis. For the most part these three have, although both Davis and Thompson both have a lot of room to improve. Ginyard on the other hand is exactly what the team needs. While his skill set differs, Marcus is a jack of all trades a la his classmate Danny Green. He can lock down players on defense, can score inside and out, can handle the ball much better than Green, and is also a very talented rebounder.

I stand by my preseason predictions for this team and think they can definitely make it to the elite eight and be a Final Four contender. Obviously they have a long way to go to get there. In fact no team in the country has looked like sure-fire title favorites and in fact Syracuse has looked been the most impressive in the first couple weeks. We should learn more about UNC and other top teams in the next couple weeks as UNC enters Murderer's Row playing taking on Michigan State at the Dean Dome (I will be in attendance), Kentucky at Rupp, and Texas in Cowboys Stadium. I hope the team can go at least 1 for 3 but even if they don't it won't change the fact its a great time to be a student at UNC (even the women's field hockey team won a title).

Friday, November 13, 2009

UNC Basketball Impressions One Week In & The Impact of Harrison Barnes

For Tar Heel fans there were two major story lines to the first week of basketball season: 1) Will a very young but talented roster perform to its top 10 ranking 2) Where was mega-recruit Harrison Barnes going to end up. Obviously we got a definitive answer to the second, which I will analyze in depth in the second part of this post. Its too early in the season to get any certain answer to the second but there may be a couple things we can gleam from the glorified scrimmages against FIU and NCCU.

The game against FIU, which I attended after being approached in the UNC dining hall an hour and a half before the game by a Carolina Fever guy giving out lower level tickets, was entertaining but didn't tell us way too much about the team. The Heels got off to a good start by overpowering the vastly outsized Golden Panthers down low with Davis, Zeller, and Thompson. Drew the Deuce also looked good and demonstrated that he has improved his scoring a bit to go along with his already solid passing and defensive games. Once the Heels built a lead the freshmen got to log some significant minutes and, SURPRISE, looked like freshmen in their first game. Strickland looked nervous dishing out 5 turnovers and Henson only put up four points. While I don't think this sloppy play will continue throughout the season (and we saw significant improvement in the NCCU game), poor decisions resulting from inexperience will most likely bite this team throughout the season and are the main reason I did not pick them to make the final four. Before I move on to the NCCU game, I want to give props to Isiah, whose FIU squad fought hard and didn't back down from a much bigger and more talented team. Isiah has come under a lot of criticism (mostly deserved) from the media and Bill Simmons but he may actually turn out to be a solid college coach. Many great college coaches have struggled in the NBA (see Rick Pitino), and with a top 50 recruit locked up for next year Isiah could use a NCAA appearance at FIU to earn him a more high profile job.

The game against NCCU was a cleaner and much more dominant performance by the Tar Heels but its hard to the win against such inferior competition too seriously. . From the first two games some things do seem to stick out about the teams. In both games the Tar Heels blocked a lot of shots and challenged many more, supporting something I have said for a while now, that UNC will be one of the best low post defensive teams in the nation. Likewise it was nice seeing a team playing tenacious perimeter defense. We will know a lot more about this team after next weeks matchups with The Ohio State Evan Turners and either Syracuse or California. With regards to individual players here are my impressions and grades for the major players through the first two games.

Larry Drew: The Duece looks good handling the ball and has racked up 12 assists to 6 turnovers. That ratio certainly could increase and while Drew can make some highlight reel
passes, he still sometimes seems to be forcing passes on occasion. Offensively he has shown an improved ability to drive and knock down occasional threes, though he still is nowhere near a Felton or Lawson.
Grade: B
Dexter Strickland: Strickland looked pretty awful during the first game, but he gets a bit of a pass since it was his first college game ever. He looked better against NCCU, knocking down several jumpshots and posting a positive assists minus turnover number. Still a work in progress right now, but Dex could emerge as a solid backup by the middle of the season
Grade: C-

Marcus Ginyard: Marcus looks like the clear leader of this team. He does everything, still performing as a lockdown defender and seems to have emerged as an offensive threat after missing last season. Apparently he practiced his shot over the time he was out and has knocked down several threes so far. His matchup against Evan Turner next week will be a good barometer of his progress.
Grade: A

Deon Thompson: Thompson came out thundering against FIU, posting a 20-10 game, then underwhelmed a bit against NCCU. Thompson looks to be one of the offensive leaders of the team, but will need to post consistent performances down low if the team hopes to keep up offensively with the better teams in the country.
Grade: B+
Ed Davis: Davis picked up right where he left off last season. He still is the best rebounder on team and his long wingspan and good timing lead to a lot a blocks and challenged shots on the defensive end. However he also seems to have picked up where he left off offensively and does not look like the dominant post scorer some expected. Ed may be a solid starter but right now he is nowhere near an all-American as some projected.
Grade: B-

Tyler Zeller: While Davis's may not have made significant offensive improvement this offseason, Tyler Zeller certainly has. The seven footer put on some weight and muscle over the offseason and now shows the confidence and aggression around the basket he seemed to be lacking last year. While much ado has been made of Henson, Zeller may be the primary sixth man on the team.
Grade: A+

Will Graves: Graves has looked solid in the starting role but is certainly not lighting it up. It seems he is acting as a solid placeholder for the starting SF spot until Henson develops a bit more and is ready to take over duties.
Grade: B-

John Henson: "That was a man yell from a baby face" might be the best announcing quote of the season and we are only two games in. Henson has only accounted for 4 points in each game, but he does look fluid out on the floor and as he continues to get used to playing the three his points will go up. Watching him play tells me that he is ideally suited for the 4 spot but with Thompson, Davis, and Zeller the SF spot is the best way to get him PT. One thing Henson already has is the ability to get blocks and his monster block against NCCU rocked the 1/3 capacity Dean Dome crowd.
Grade: B

The Wears, Leslie McDonald, and Justin Watts all looked impressive at points, but look as if they will be further down on the depth chart once Roy shores up the rotation. Regardless, this team has some major depth and tired player should never be a problem.

Now to the news that has made most Tar Heel fans giddier than a 12 year old girl in the first row at a Jonas Brother concert. Harrison Barnes, after giving a speech rivaling the Gettysburg Address in length, declared that he would sign a letter of intent to play at North Carolina. To take a page out of Bill Simmons book: "Duke Fans you may now light yourselves on fire."
Barnes has been heralded as the most polished high school prospect since LeBron and while certainly no one expects him to be as good as King James, he give UNC a ridiculously talented group coming in next year alongside 6'6 shooting guard Reggie Bullock (#2 SG in ESPNU's rankings) and 6'4 pure point guard Kendall Marshall (who has been labeled the best pure passer in the nation). Barnes, who places an emphasis on academics, also claims that he plans on staying for 3 years, though I don't think anyone would be surprised if he bolted after 1 or 2. Combined with the returning talent next year UNC has to be considered odds on favorites for another title in 2011 and look to be close to establishing a basketball dynasty under Roy Williams. Just for pure speculative fun here's what I envision as UNC's depth chart next season

PG: DrewII, Marshall, Strickland
SG: Bullock, Strickland, McDonald
SF: Barnes, Graves, Watts
PF: Henson, D. Wear, T. Wear
C: Zeller, D. Wear, T. Wear

Hold on a second I have to go change my pants after looking over that lineup.....

...okay well first off I projected Ed Davis as leaving after this season due to his high draft stock, but if he does not show improvement this season he could theoretically be back (especially given how spending 3+ years paid off for last year's juniors and seniors). In contrast, I thought Henson will probably stick around another year to develop and get stronger unless he is absolutely hellbent on leaving this season (but the prospect of playing with Barnes probably doesn't hurt the chances of his return.

As I already alluded Duke is the big loser in this sweepstakes. While I'm sure Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, and UCLA would have loved to have him as well, all those schools save ISU (which was a long shot anyways) have been bringing in solid recruiting classes recently. Duke however has been in a bit of a draught and were really banking on Barnes helping turn the Devils back into perennial title contenders. Basically Roy just pwned K. And I'm loving every minute of it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

UNC Tar Heels Basketball 2009-2010 Season Preview Megapost

The Tar Heels' season tips off on Monday night against Zeke Thomas' Florida International Squad. While there should not be too much trepidation regarding the opener, especially after FIU's exhibition loss to NAIA school Northwood, the team is as packed with questions as it is with talent. However, at least to me this is not necessarily a bad thing as it serves as a nice change of pace following national championship expectations over the past three years. This post will be dedicated to taking a look into what we may be able to expect from this team including thoughts on the starting lineup and all of the major players, ranking the ten best games on the schedule, and my prediction for how the season will unfold.

Player Thoughts and Expectations
Larry Drew II (PG)- Drew the Deuce is certainly the potential starter who fans have the most reservations about. While Drew certainly has hitches in his game (particularly his shooting), I am convinced after watching him in limited action last season that he can be an effective point guard for this team. The caveat is that he cannot be the type of effective point guard we have grown accustomed to here at Chapel Hill. He does not have the speed, driving ability, or three point shooting of Felton or Lawson. What he does have is a natural ability to make good passes and rack up statistics in the assist category. Also his taller and longer frame allows him better defensive skills. While it would be unfair to make the comparison at this point in his career, expect Drew II to be a guard more in the mold of Ed Cota this season.

Dexter Strickland (PG/SG)- If Drew does falter, Strickland could possibly step up and run the offense. As it stands I think he will see time coming off the bench at both the 1 and 2 guard positions. All reports indicate that Stickland is an unselfish player who knows the game and is willing to work hard on both ends of the court. He will develop offensively as his career at Carolina goes on but for this season he looks to be a key reserve who can make an impact off the bench with great defense and good slashing ability.

Leslie McDonald (SG)- At this point McDonald, or as I have nicknamed him "McFlurry" (cue Dickie V: "This diaper dandy McDonald is a McFlurry out there on the court") , seems to be the most unknown commodity of the players on the roster who may see significant time. Like Stickland. McDonald may not be a potent weapon offensively right off the bat, but can contribute due to good court sense.

Marcus Ginyard (SG/SF)- After having to watch his peers cut down the nets in Detroit from the bench, Ginyard is probably itching to get back on the court and literally lead this young but talented team back to the Final Four. While he has worked on his jumpshot Ginyard will always be most valueable as a lockdown defender, something last year's team dearly missed at times. In fact this team may be one of the best defensive Carolina teams in recent memory. Ginyard also has the ability to handle the ball and could take over the point guard duties in a pinch.

Justin Watts (SG)- Watts probably won't see signficant minutes this season, but he does look to have improved over the summer and probably won't be a liability if called on to play some minutes in relief this season. Then again with a team that is so unproven in the backcourt, Watts has a chance to earn more significant minutes if he can score on the offensive end.

William Graves (SF)- Oh Will Graves, how unintentionally hilarious your career at North Carolina has been. Like Ginyard, Will "Cheech" Graves also had to miss out on contributing for a national title last season. However unlike Ginyard, it was his fault. Graves is slighly overweight, not particularly quick, and may be a subpar defender. However he is also the only player on the roster who seems to be able to knock down treys with any consistency. If he works his way into shape he could fill the Rayshawn Terry role and be a major contributer. If not he may lose his spot to this next guy sooner rather than later.

John Henson (SF/PF)- I'm really not sure that Henson belongs at the SF position. His outside shooting appears sketchy and while he is a good ball handler I'm not sure if he is great (of course neither was Danny Green). However, I love the move of putting him at the three because it causes matchup nightmares on both ends of the court. On the offensive end, Henson will give opposing teams nightmares with his size and speed. Defensively Henson should give opposing SF's problems getting up a clean shot and should also rack up some blocks in the paint. If he bulks up a bit and starts shooting well outside Henson could become a poor man's Kevin Durant.

Ed Davis (PF)- Davis has the most potential to be a superstar on the team. With his long frame and impressive agility, he's already one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the ACC. If he can develop more offensively and become a legitimate double-double threat, it will be very hard for teams to match up with UNC in the frontcourt.

Deon Thompson (PF)- The only significant member of the class of 2010 remaining on the roster, Thomson has been equally promising and inconsistent throughout his career at UNC. He has improved every season and with Hansbrough out of the way this could be the season that Thompy finally puts it all together. I expect numbers around 16 PPG and 8 RPG for Thompson, and if he can do that UNC will have the best frontcourt in the nation.

Tyler Zeller (C)- When I walked by Zeller during the later part of the summer I was amazed at how much muscle he had put on. He still looks goofy as ever, but he no longer is a beanpole. Hopefully that will translate into Zeller becoming more physical around the rim on offense. While he has a sweet hook shot he needs to take a page out of the book of another Tyler and get physical near the rim both scoring and rebounding. The presence of Zeller should be crucial not only in adding to a loaded frontcourt but also in giving Davis and Thompson relief.

David/Travis Wear (PF)- The Wears seem to play like upperclassmen and should both be crucial glue guys. They both are relatively strong in the paint and at least one of them demonstrated impressive range on the jumpshot during Late Night With Roy. Thing 1 and Thing 2 should be perfect glue guys who can give the starters at 3 and 4 a rest without the team dropping off too much.

Expected Starting Lineup/Depth Chart
Opening Night
PG: Drew II/Stickland
SG: Ginyard/Stickland/McDonald/Watts
SF: Graves/Henson/Wears
PF: Davis/Henson/Wears
C: Thompson/Zeller

By Season's End
PG: Drew II/Strickland
SG: Ginyard/McDonald/Stickland/Watts
SF: Henson/Graves/Wears
PF: Davis/Wears/Henson
C: Thompson/Zeller

The Ten Best Games of the Season

10) @Maryland (Feb 7)
Of all the teams in the ACC, the Terrapins seem to have had the most success against Carolina. Maryland returns a veteran team led by the perpetually hateable Grevis Vasquez. The vicious college park crowd will also add to the atmosphere and getting a win there would be a testament to the fortitude of UNC's young team.

9) @N.C. State (Jan 26)
It won't be a good or exciting game, but it's always fun to watch UNC beat up on State.

8) Ohio State at Madison Square Garden (Nov 19)
What should be the first major challenge of the year against a solid OSU team. The fact that it is on the national stage will make it that much more exciting. Also for me this is somewhat of a sentimental matchup as the first Tar Heel game I attended was against #1 OSU my freshman year (2006).

7) @Clemson (Jan 13)
Clemson has come oh so close to taking out Carolina in the past several years and you've got to think that this may be one of their best chances, especially with Wayne Ellington off in the NBA. With talented recruits and a returning Trevor Booker, the Tigers are a formidable foe and manage to catch Carolina at home early in the season where

6) Georgia Tech (Jan 16)
I thought I may be flying under the radar with my designation of the Yellow Jackets as my 2009-2010 sleeper team this summer, but apparently not. The Jackets are being picked to finish in the top half of the ACC behind returning stars Ian Shumpert and Gani Lawal alongside mega recruit Derrick Favors. In addition to the Balboa-Creed (fiesty newcomer versus reigning champ) angle, the matchup of Favors and Lawal versus Davis and Thompson should be a delight to watch.

5) Duke (Feb 10)
Other than the fact that it is Duke, this game may be a good chance for the Dookies to get a win against a Tar Heels team that still may not have melded by this point. I intend to be at the Smith Center that night in what should be a very hyped game since UNC is defending champs.

4) Texas at Cowboys Stadium (Dec 19)
Texas may be the most dangerous team on the Tar Heels schedule as they have a frontcourt that can match up with UNC's and a very good backcourt as well. Among the many great matchups watching fifth year senior Marcus Ginyard try to shut down mega-frosh Avery Bradley may be the most intriguing.

3) Michigan State (Dec 1)
Gotta love a national title rematch. Everything says the Spartans should win as they have a more veteran team and will have a taste for revenge. That said, Roy seems to own Tom Izzo and the Tar Heels will look to prove themselves on a national stage.

2) @Kentucky (Dec 5)
The top two countries in the nation with regards to total wins. The tar heels follow up their national title rematch with a perhapes even more hyped matchup at Rupp between two very promising but young teams should be very entertaining. The Heels hold the edge in the frontcourt while John Wall of the wildcats should give whoever is guarding him nightmares. Ashely Judd should at least feel better about her chances this year.

1) @Duke (Mar 6)
Could it be anything else? Duke will want to prevent UNC from grabbing a fifth straight at Cameron Indoor and the Tar Heels should be a more experienced team by this point. Onc again this could determine the ACC championship. Duke-UNC is almost always will be #1 (and on a side note should be a very intriguing football matchup this Saturday).

Season Prognostication
-Record: 24-7 (Losses: MSU, @Texas, @Clemson, @Maryland, @ GT, Wake Forest, @ Duke)
-ACC Regular Season Runner Up (Duke ACC champion)
-ACC Tournament Champion
-NCAA Tournament:
#3 Seed
Elite Eight Appearance