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Better Talent Only Part Of Turnaround

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff


December 2, 2002

CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina basketball team could have left New York City all fat and sassy, proud of its accomplishments and proud of itself. The Tar Heels embarrassed the No. 2 team in the country, Kansas, in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, and then dominated Stanford in the title game — the same Stanford team that had defeated No. 7 Florida two nights earlier. After beating the Cardinal, North Carolina's players mounted a ladder under each basket and cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden while the school's pep band played.

They could have been satisfied, and that would have been the worst thing to happen to a young team off to a 5-0 start. But it didn't seem to happen to this one.

“We're still humble and hungry,” said sophomore guard Melvin Scott, whose willingness to come off the bench at either guard spot, after starting 21 games last season, typifies the attitude of the 2002-03 Tar Heels. “We'll be humble until we win a championship, and we'll stay hungry. All this success is going to do is create a situation in practice where we compete even harder because we want more.”

From New York to North Carolina, headlines proclaimed that the Tar Heels were back after their unexpected run to the Preseason NIT title. While it was early for that kind of talk, it did seem justified — even if Carolina did go
8-20 just last season, and even if it had played only five games this season.

You don't need to be a basketball savant to know that these Tar Heels bear almost no resemblance to last season's bunch. All you need to do is turn on the television or attend a game — just one game — and you'll know. The Tar Heels already know.

“There's no comparison to last year,” sophomore forward Jawad Williams said. “We're faster, more athletic and hungrier than last year. We shoot better ... no comparison.”

North Carolina's fast start already prompted at least one state columnist to jump on the UNC bandwagon with both feet and proclaim the Tar Heels, after their Preseason NIT championship, the No. 1 team in the country. That's a bit much in our eyes — maybe even more than a bit — but the Tar Heels already have addressed some of the biggest questions facing them in October. The main one was talent.

While recruiting experts all over the place couldn't say enough nice things about the UNC freshmen, these were some of the same experts who also touted such recruits as Duke's Casey Sanders and even ex-North Carolina players Ronald Curry and Jason Capel. While Sanders is a nice role player, Curry's career never had a chance and Capel was solid, none of them was a program-reversing player. So until UNC freshmen Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May proved they could do it for North Carolina, that was a question.

OK, next question.

“I don't know that you're going to find a much better point guard than Felton or an off guard like McCants,” Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said after the Tar Heels defeated his team. “And I really like Sean May inside. So those three guys, in and of themselves, would turn most people around.”

Depth Among Lingering Concerns

Even assuming that trio was as good as advertised, which it was, that still left the Tar Heels with a question of depth. Was the next tier of freshmen — one-time football recruit David Noel and big man projects Damion Grant and Byron Sanders — ready to provide depth? Would the backup point guard really be senior reserve Jonathan Holmes?

“Depth is an issue, especially inside,” UNC coach Matt Doherty had conceded before the season.

It remains an issue, but the Tar Heels already have shown they can handle foul trouble. Against Kansas, Felton sat out the final eight minutes of the first half with two fouls, and the UNC lead grew from 23-22 to 38-29 in his absence. Against Stanford, McCants left with two fouls for a huge chunk of the first half, and again the UNC lead grew — from 17-9 to 33-17. At one point in that run, the Tar Heels had both McCants and Felton on the bench, and the result was a 3-0 advantage for Carolina.

“I was really happy to see that,” Doherty said. “We had guys come off the bench and play a big role when we needed them.”

While Holmes has been Felton's primary substitute when the freshman needs a minute or two to rest, it was Scott who replaced Felton against Kansas. That was a significant development, because it showed that Doherty has faith in Scott to run the team in a pinch, despite his ratio of assists to turnovers (55-58) last season. A few times, McCants brought the ball upcourt without a problem, something that could happen a lot more as McCants continues to offer evidence that he is a better all-around player than former UNC shooting guard and co-ACC player of the year Joseph Forte.

Without question, the Tar Heels still must prove they can handle similar emergencies should May run into significant foul trouble. For now, May's primary backup has been the slender Sanders, who hasn't shown any notable strengths but who hasn't been a major liability, either.

Many expected the UNC backup center, and maybe even the UNC starting center, to be the other freshman, Grant, but his preseason was shortened by a scary incident in which he fainted at practice. Repeated tests on his heart showed no condition that will end his career, but while awaiting those tests Grant was held out of the first two games, and he didn't play in New York.

A medical redshirt isn't out of the question for Grant, though if he can help the team at all — even for three or four minutes a game — that probably won't happen. In the interim, May has proven to have the conditioning needed to play 30-plus minutes, and the savvy to avoid foul trouble despite his willingness to block shots.

Football: Staff Deserves Scrutiny

John Bunting has said he foresees making no changes on his coaching staff this offseason, but at the same time he said he will examine everything about the UNC football program — starting with himself, and working down to his staff and players — before embarking on spring practice.

If he's serious about that, can he really afford to enter that process bent on keeping his staff intact? It's possible that Dave Huxtable is the best man for defensive coordinator, although you won't hear many UNC fans agree. Bunting knows it was Huxtable who helped turn journeyman outside linebacker David Thornton into an NFL draft pick in 2001, but Huxtable was unable to do the same — or even come close — with this season's version of Thornton, Malcolm Stewart.

The 2002 UNC defense was among the worst defenses in program history. Youth had a lot to do with that, and a lack of talent had a lot to do with that, but Bunting should at least be open to the possibility that Huxtable had something to do with that, too. Bunting elevated Huxtable to coordinator after last season's guy, Jon Tenuta, fled for Georgia Tech. Huxtable had been a defensive coordinator before, at Georgia Tech, where his defenses were in the middle of the ACC pack in terms of points allowed.

Bunting will make the final call on Huxtable and the rest of his staff, and Bunting knows his program and his assistants better than anyone. But UNC fans probably would feel better about his decision if they believed his mind wasn't already made up.


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