|Kendall Marshall taking over at point guard was a turning point in the season|
To set the stage, the 2010-2011 season came in on the heels of one of the most disappointing Carolina basketball seasons ever. In what may have been one of the worst title defenses of all time a team that was ravaged by injuries and never seemed to gel on or off the court stumbled to a 16-16 regular season record (5-11 ACC) and ended up losing in the final of the NIT. To make matters worse, Duke, with the help of an advantageous draw, cut down the nets in Indianapolis to bring the Devils within one national championship of UNC. One of the few high moments what was otherwise an unmitigated disaster from a Tar Heel fan point of view was the commitment of top recruit Harrison Barnes, the nation's top recruit and perhaps the most heralded high school senior since LeBron.
Entering this season it was apparent that the roster contained a substantial amount of talent, but nearly all of it was unproven. The natural leader of the team, redshirt senior Will Graves, was kicked off the team prior to the start of the season. Larry Drew II, a junior point guard who had faced significant criticism the previous season was the only returning starter. In fact the previous season there were even rumors of him transferring (*foreshadowing*). Tyler Zeller was also a junior who had shown promising flashed but had spend much of his first two seasons injured. John Henson, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald were the remaining pieces of what had been a highly heralded and highly disappointing (at least to some impatient UNC fans) freshman class. Justin Knox was a graduate transfer from Alabama, who seemed like a useful stopgap without true star power. Lastly, Barnes was joined by fellow highly rated freshmen Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock who many hoped would make an immediate impact to restore the program to national prominence after a one year leave.
The offseason was characterized by high expectations from the media and intense debate among fans. Despite the dearth of proven qualities on the roster, the Tar Heels were ranked #8 in the preseason rankings, largely in part to the stratospheric expectations for Harrison Barnes who was voted a preseason All-American and even picked by some to end up national player of the year. Among fans, debates raged about starters and playing time, with a particular emphasis on the point guard position. Due to Larry Drew's poor play the previous season and moments that some fans thought reflected a lack of commitment to the program, many fans advocated starting freshman Kendall Marshall over Drew. In what was not a surprise to anyone who knows Roy Williams' tendencies as a coach, Drew got the starting nod to begin the season.
I could continue recapping the season in this manner, but if you are reading this post you probably already know rest of the story. So instead I'm going to go through the major highlights and lowlights in a sequential manner (complete with youtube links when appropriate).
Lowlight #1: Puerto Rico: Land of Sunshine and Disappointment
After dispatching Lipscomb and Hofstra in their opening two games, Carolina faced Minnesota in the Puerto Rico tournament semifinals. Larry Drew was unimpressive, the frontcourt was bullied by Ralph Sampson and Trevor Mbakwe and Harrison Barnes went 0-12 from the field. Just two days later, Vanderbilt sent the Tar Heels to a 2-2 record. Barnes was again unimpressive shooting and looked lost and Drew failed to inspire much confidence. Tyler Zeller was the only Tar Heel to impress in Puerto Rico, but had moments where he appeared timid in the paint. Puerto Rico was certainly not encouraging to many Tar Heel fans who still had the previous season's NIT debacle etched into their mind.
Highlight #1: Tyler Zeller gets UNC its first signature win
Things didn't get immediately better for the Heels after Puerto Rico. The Heels did avenge the previous season's loss to College of Charleston, but Illinois beat Carolina by 12 in Champaign in the Big 10-ACC challenge. The next game was against the Kentucky Wildcats, who like the Tar Heels carried high expectations but little experience. In a game staged in front of a raucous Dean Dome the score was always close, though Kentucky held the advantage for most of the game. However, the Wildcats had to battle foul trouble and Tyler Zeller, who seemed to hold a grudge against the team that injured him his freshman year. John Henson's length rendered freshman superstar Terrence Jones ineffective. Josh Harrelson (pre-steroids and magical coordination pills) was a nonfactor for the Wildcats. In fact the only reason Kentucky was able to hold the advantage for most of the game was the fact that they shot 9-21 from beyond the arc (*more foreshadowing*). Harrison Barnes remained underwhelming but did manage a nice run in the second half punctuated by the putback dunk shown above. In the end Zeller's free throws down the stretch made the difference and Chapel Hill was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Highlight #2/Lowlight #2: Dammit Cory Joseph
A couple weeks later UNC faced off with Texas in Greensboro. The game was well played by both teams, and for the first time, Carolina showed off their potential. After Texas came back to take the lead in the final minutes, Harrison Barnes showed the first glimpse of a clutchness that would define the rest of his season by hitting a huge 3 to tie the game. However, fellow freshman Cory Joseph of the Longhorns hit a Kobe-esque turnaround jumper from the free throw line to give the Longhorns the victory. All in all it was not a performance to be ashamed of, but it prevented UNC from returning to the rankings for the next month.
Lowlight #3: Beatdown in A-town
Following the Texas loss, UNC won five straight including their first two ACC games in come-from-behind victories against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Both of those games were ugly and featured slow starts from UNC, but nonetheless the Heels seemed poised to reenter the top 25 if they could beat 8-8 Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Nothing of the sort happened and instead the Yellow Jackets outhustled and manhandled UNC, forcing the Heels into 18 turnovers and 27.6% shooting from the field (which I thought was the worst a team could shoot until I saw Butler in the National Championship game). In the end Georgia Tech beat Carolina by 20 which sparked both good things (the switch to Kendall Marshall as starting point guard) and bad things (IC temporarily turning into an insane asylum, Roy Williams making some angry comments on his radio show). While I consider myself a pretty reasonable and realistic fan, even I was worried that UNC may miss a second consecutive NCAA tournament.
Highlight #3: Enter Black Falcon
UNC beat Clemson in a close game at home to keep the Tigers winless in Chapel Hill then traveled to Miami to play the Hurricanes. UNC again started slow but managed to keep the game neck and neck for most of the second half. With the score tied at 71 and 8 seconds on the clock, Barnes hit a three to win the game for Carolina. He followed his clutch antics by putting up 25 against NC State (the first time he broke 20 points) and then 26 in a 32 point beatdown against Boston College. Barnes' breakout propelled the Tar Heels back into the top 25 and made Tar Heel fans aware of his nickname "The Black Falcon" (which while I have embraced it, still comes across as trying a bit too hard to be Kobe).
Highlight #4: Larry Who?
The switch to Kendall Marshall at point guard after the GT game seemed to go more smoothly than expected. Drew gave UNC a defensive boost off the bench in the four games following Kendall Marshall's promotion. Then, out of nowhere, word came out that Larry Drew had left campus in the middle of the week and would be transferring. In retrospect the decision to leave in the middle of the season still seems bizarre, but it has become more and more clear that his parents (especially his psycho mom) had a lot to do with the decision. With questions of whether a freshman point guard would be able to carry the increased load, Kendall Marshall put on a passing clinic for the ages against Florida State, a team with one of the best defenses in the nation that had beaten Duke just a week earlier. Marshall finished with 16 assists, 9 points, and only 3 turnovers and helped make UNC the first team all season to shoot above 50% against the Seminoles.
Highlight #5/Lowlight #4: Heels Make a Statement in Durham then Nolan Smith Makes a Louder One
While Carolina was suddenly starting to play to their potential, they were still considerable underdogs going into their matchup against Duke in Durham. While Duke had lost freshman phenom Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith was playing at a national player of the year level. So when the Tar Heels came out and jumped out to a 14 point lead at the half in Cameron Indoor, most people were stunned. In the first half, UNC flexed their superior talent and Duke seemed unable to match UNC's athleticism. However, Nolan Smith and Seth Curry led a furious comeback in the second half which was aided by poor perimeter shooting from the Heels. While it stung to lose a game to our arch-rivals in which we held a 14 point lead at halftime, the game proved that Carolina could compete with any team in the nation when playing to their potential.
We'll stop here. Make sure to check out part two.