January 27, 2003
CHAPEL HILL It wouldn't have been fair to expect much smooth sailing for a UNC team that, as fans are reminded frequently, ranks as the youngest team (out of 327) in Division I college basketball. Anyone with five freshmen and three sophomores among the top eight players can be expected to endure some significant growing pains along the way. Third-year coach Matt Doherty and his players still have some things to work out behind the scenes. That remains a work-in-progress, regardless of how many UNC protectionists insist otherwise. (A recent, well-done article in the Raleigh News & Observer was balanced but conservative in illuminating the issues, and any UNC fan who attacked writer Barry Svrluga should have thanked him instead.) Everyone also knew the true freshmen even prep All-Americans Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants would take a while to adjust to the college game. Inevitably, the Heels would encounter the challenges that face all teams with inadequate depth and experience.
So, when UNC (11-7, 2-3 ACC) lost back-to-back conference games to Maryland (81-66 at home) and N.C. State (86-77 on the road) in late January, there was no reason to panic. Felton and McCants were showing flashes of brilliance with increasing regularity, the whole team was exhibiting lots of heart and persistence even in defeat, and most of the losses came with May (expected back in late February) sidelined with a foot injury. Thanks to a strong schedule and earlier victories over Kansas, Stanford and Connecticut, the Tar Heels remained in the top 30 in most RPI estimates despite their so-so record, and anything in the top 40 generally is considered pretty solid ground by the NCAA selection committee.
Nevertheless, two issues loomed as potential potholes for Carolina entering February. One was the schedule, which set up in a way that could threaten the Heels' fragile confidence to a scary degree. The other was the team's three sophomores, who were expected to be rare sources of stability for the program but instead have failed to produce on the court.
The immediate schedule was set to unfold this way: at Georgia Tech (Jan. 29), Wake Forest (Feb. 2), at Duke (Feb. 5). UNC was likely to be the underdog in all three games; unless Felton and McCants get a lot more help, it's easy to envision the Heels finishing an ugly 2-6 (and being 11-10 overall) after their first trip through ACC play. If it happens that way, the burden will fall on Doherty to keep the team together. Even if the Heels manage a 1-2 record in those games, 3-5 and 12-9 aren't usually numbers that build confidence.
This Carolina team has been impressive in its ability to hang tough under difficult circumstances, and that quality is likely to be challenged again soon. If the Heels can hold things together through the game at Duke, they'll have a chance to build some momentum. The subsequent four games on the schedule are Florida State (Feb. 8), Virginia (Feb. 12), at Clemson (Feb. 15) and North Carolina A&T (Feb. 18). Even those first three aren't likely to come easily for UNC, which has absolutely no interior game offensively or defensively and relies heavily on its up-and-down perimeter shooting. The Heels clearly will have to be in a healthy, positive state of mind to have a chance to win them all.
Sophomores Mostly Disappointing
In theory, on this UNC team at least, the first place to turn for on-court leadership was the sophomore class. Felton, May and McCants all have some impressive natural qualities that have helped in this regard, but they're still freshmen. Will Johnson and Jonathan Holmes are hard-working, well-liked seniors, but they rarely play extended minutes.
The answer, then, was supposed to come from the closest thing the Tar Heels had to proven, experienced players entering the 2002-03 season: sophomores Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams. What they couldn't provide in the form of leadership, they were expected to provide in the form of consistent performance.
Unfortunately for Doherty, Manuel and Scott only rarely have delivered on either count, and Williams has bounced back and forth between impressive outings and horrible ones. In the leadership department, too, only Williams deserves much credit. According to sources, he has been extremely helpful this season in helping Felton and McCants overcome some tense encounters with Doherty, and he and Johnson have been particularly supportive of the same players in their sometimes-uncomfortable quests to tackle prominent roles.
In the final analysis, any team that relies heavily on only six players with one of those being either over-his-head freshman center Byron Sanders or (more recently) freshman walk-on David Noel simply cannot afford to have two of the other five take nights off. Nevertheless, since May's injury, there have been many times when Felton, McCants and (sometimes) Williams must have felt as if they were playing three against five. If UNC has any room left on the mantle beside its Youngest Team In America plaque, it may be eligible for another: Most Imbalanced Roster In America. Just as it's hard to imagine a Carolina team with three (including May) more impressive freshmen, it's hard to imagine a Carolina team that's weaker in the nine or 10 other spots on the roster.
Of course, it's not necessarily a major problem if players 10-13 aren't quite ready for big-time ACC basketball. But it's a serious issue if the sixth and seventh players in the rotation aren't giving a team any significant production, and it's an enormous problem when the fourth and fifth guys are struggling. That's where Manuel and Scott come into play.
In UNC's home loss to Maryland, Felton, McCants and Williams scored 58 of the team's 66 points. Scott scored three points, converting only one of his six attempts from the field. Manuel missed all four of his field goal attempts, going scoreless scoreless for the fourth time in the Heels' first 17 games and scoring in single-digits for the 12th time, despite often playing more than 30 minutes a game. Scott then went scoreless for the first time this year (he sat out against Iona) against NCSU, missing all three of his field goal attempts. Felton and McCants had 48 of the team's 77 points against the Wolfpack, as Williams suffered through a miserable three-point (one of nine field goals), five-rebound effort.
Doherty has no choice but to play Williams, who has great talent and is trying hard but is facing two difficult challenges at the same time finding his erratic jump shot for a team that desperately needs another scorer, and serving as a slender 6-8 center or power forward simply because the Heels don't have anyone else who can help inside. He's taking a beating from bigger players on offense, defense and under the boards, and that's probably not helping the rest of his game.
Manuel and Scott present Doherty with even more difficult choices. The former is an awesome defender who simply hasn't improved any aspect of his offensive game much during his two years on campus. He's a shaky ball-handler, a turnover-prone penetrator, an unremarkable passer and an unreliable shooter (22 percent on threes). The latter also has only one thing he does exceptionally well he has a beautiful jumper, and he's capable of hitting threes (36 percent) in bunches but even that aspect of his game has been inconsistent. In the Heels' seven losses, Scott made only six of 22 (27 percent) three-point attempts.
If the Heels are to avoid various disaster scenarios prior to May's return, they're going to need continued progress from Felton and McCants, more consistency from Williams and better production from everyone else especially Manuel and Scott. If they get those things, they'll be an NCAA Tournament team. If they don't, they won't.