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).

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