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Only Common Theme: Expect Unexpected

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

  February 16, 2004 CHAPEL HILL —By losing to lowly Clemson in a Jan. 31 road game, the North Carolina basketball team put itself in a very precarious situation. With five road games in the second half of the ACC schedule, the Tar Heels faced the very real possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row. In the first four games of February, however, the same UNC team pounded Wake Forest on the road, raced past Maryland at home and came within an eyelash of upsetting No. 1 Duke. The Tar Heels lost to the Blue Devils 83-81 in overtime. So, coach, what in the name of ImClone stock prices is going on here? “The consistency with which we're playing is mindboggling,”first-year UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We're the most consistently inconsistent team I've ever coached. … I'm not trying to dodge anybody's questions, but you're asking me to explain some things I don't always understand very well myself.” After the Feb. 15 victory over the Terps, the NCAA picture looked like this: If the Tar Heels (15-7, 5-6 ACC) can win remaining home games against Florida State and Clemson, they will finish at least 7-9 in the ACC and be virtually assured of an at-large NCAA bid. In addition, road games against Virginia, N.C. State and Duke offer the opportunity to build some momentum for a run into the postseason. Such is life for Williams and the Heels in Chapel Hill these days. Lose to the lowest-ranked outfit in the conference, take the top-ranked team in the nation to overtime, beat two very solid ACC opponents under high-pressure, no-margin-for-error circumstances, etc. At this point, nobody would be surprised if the Heels lost to FSU or Clemson at home. They're just as capable, of course, of beating Duke or N.C. State on the road. If many of Carolina's problems seem familiar, it's because they're many of the same concerns Williams voiced almost four months ago. The Heels'effort on defense is getting better but remains inconsistent. Whenever the rock is out of the hands of star point guard Raymond Felton, the team's ball-handling is a possession-by-possession adventure. Most of the players in UNC's seven-man rotation lack the toughness to grab a crucial rebound in traffic, take an uncomfortable charge or come up with a loose ball at the bottom of a pile. Every time the Tar Heels seem on the verge of something great, the plan goes awry. Felton appeared to emerge as a leader at Wake Forest, then crumbled against Maryland. Junior forward Jawad Williams was a shadow of himself for about a month, then re-emerged against the Terps with an impressive 23-point, eight-rebound effort. The list goes on and on. Felton Working On Leadership Some of the weaknesses of this UNC team simply aren't going to go away. The Tar Heels have exactly one above-average ball-handler in Felton, who's phenomenal at times, but no amount of practice or coaching is going to turn anyone else on the roster into Kenny Smith. Similarly, the Heels feel they still have plenty of room to improve defensively, but nobody is going to magically transform into Derrick Phelps or George Lynch overnight. In other areas, though, this bunch has frustrated Williams beyond belief. The coach joked about jumping out of the plane on the way home from the Kentucky game. He recently said —jokingly, for all you PC freaks out there —that he now understands why coaches aren't allowed to carry guns on the sidelines. Take leadership, for example. Every great team has a rock-solid, well-respected leader. Williams has spent the last four months trying to find one, and he may not have one yet. Surely, this is one of the things that's had his stomach turning. There are no scholarship seniors on this UNC team. Juniors Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott are role players, and their personalities don't fit the traditional leadership role anyway. Jawad Williams, another junior, has been a good leader at times, but his struggles with injuries and his own game often have left him distracted or unavailable. Sophomore swingman Rashad McCants recently has been scoring like his idol, Michael Jordan, but McCants'own teammates freely admit that they don't understand the mercurial star very well. At this stage of his career, well-liked and respected sophomore center Sean May is way too hard on himself to be a rock of stability for everyone else. The obvious choice, then, is Felton. He's the point guard, after all, and that's most often the man for the job. But Felton is soft-spoken by nature, and he enjoys the spotlight only in a very basketball-specific sense. He doesn't like talking about himself. He doesn't always feel comfortable forcefully telling others what to do. He's non-confrontational to the point that some have wondered if he's too nice to run a championship team. It's obvious that the UNC coaches have talked to Felton about his leadership skills this season. He mentions it occasionally. During the recent Wake Forest game, when he had 17 assists, four assists and no turnovers, he did all the right leadership-type things well —being vocal, getting everyone involved, being aggressive, etc. After the game, he also said all the right things. “That's the way I need to play every night,”Felton said. “Take care of the ball and control the team, offensively and defensively. Our team needs a leader, and I feel like I can be that guy. I think that's what this team is missing. It's missing a key leader on the court that leads by example and that leads vocally. I just stepped up and did that, and that's how I'm going to play the rest of the season.” Over his next two games, Felton averaged just 5.5 points, six assists and 4.5 turnovers. The Heels again lacked a leader when they needed one at Georgia Tech, and they beat Maryland despite a no-field goal, seven-turnover effort from Felton in which he was limited to a season-low 24 minutes because of foul trouble. So the search continues…