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With Everyone Back, Anything Can Happen

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

February 10, 2003

CHAPEL HILL — One month before the ACC Tournament, the North Carolina basketball team perfectly fit an odd description: The Tar Heels seemed as likely to make the NCAA Tournament as they were to appear in the play-in game of the conference's postseason event. In short, anything can happen.

After finishing an ugly 2-6 (tied for last) in their first trip through the league's round-robin format, the Heels (12-10, 3-6 ACC) came oh-so-close to losing a home game to fellow cellar-dweller Florida State. When UNC pulled the game out, 61-60, it kept alive the team's hopes of rebuilding some momentum during a four-game stretch against FSU, Virginia, Clemson (away) and North Carolina A&T. Despite its mediocre record, Carolina's RPI ranking — a key number utilized by the NCAA selection committee — remained high enough (in the low 30s) to suggest that even a 7-9 ACC finish could be enough to land a bid.

While the FSU victory snapped the Tar Heels' five-game losing streak, it served only to reinforce the good news-bad news story of this tumultuous season. Just as several key players (especially Raymond Felton, Jawad Williams and David Noel) were improving their play and finally getting in tune with third-year coach Matt Doherty, another potential UNC superstar figuratively joined freshman center Sean May on the disabled list.

While it was true that freshman swingman Rashad McCants was battling minor back and groin injuries through a horrendous three-game stretch against Wake Forest, Duke and FSU (zero points in 18 minutes in that one), even McCants himself agreed that the overwhelming majority of his problems were above the shoulder level. When Doherty replaced him with Noel in the starting lineup, citing Noel's better defense and McCants' lack of intensity at that end of the floor, almost everyone with access to game tape agreed with the coach. McCants, however, definitely didn't see it that way. He was careful with his public comments, but he made it clear he disagreed. Whether his resulting poor play was more the result of sulking or difficulty adjusting to fewer minutes and a reserve role remained open for debate.

After averaging 19.4 points through the first 18 games of the season and looking like one of the nation's best shooters along the way, McCants averaged 6.8 points in the next four games. Some of the same wide-open looks from three-point range that seemed almost automatic in December barely drew iron in early February. The same defensive intensity that made him famous at the high school level appeared only in spurts. The same super-confident rookie who exploded onto the college basketball scene in November admitted he was shaken, confused and frustrated with his play.

The best news for Doherty was that, despite its many struggles, his team continued to play hard and play together. In many of its losses, Carolina bounced back from double-digit deficits and gave itself a chance. Even when the Heels didn't win, they usually left the court with some positive things to build upon.

Felton, a minor disappointment earlier in the year, continued evolving into the superstar point guard he'll be some day soon. He was magical with the ball, effective on penetration and gained confidence in his three-point shot. Williams stepped forward as a rock of stability, showing leadership off the court and battling through shooting difficulties to become a very effective two-way player on it. Noel, an amazing athlete, hard worker, outstanding defender and opportunistic scorer, proved beyond any doubt that Doherty's walk-on plan (Noel gets a scholarship next season) was a stroke of genius rather than a desperate reach.

The bad news for Doherty is that Felton, Williams and Noel need more help — a lot more help — and there are questions everywhere the coach looks.

May and McCants are wonderful options, obviously, but their physical/mental status remains uncertain. (May's earliest possible return is Feb. 18.) Sophomore swingman Jackie Manuel has elevated his game at both ends of the court, and he already was plenty good defensively, but he's still a wildly inconsistent option on offense. Sophomore guard Melvin Scott, who recently complained about not understanding his role, actually was fortunate to be playing at all; his nice shooting stroke still wasn't hitting, and his ball-handling and defense were terrible. Freshman big men Byron Sanders and Damion Grant simply aren't ready.

Without May and McCants, UNC is a wobbly, perimeter-oriented team that can stay in most games but likely will rise or fall on the success of its unpredictable outside shooting. With May and McCants, the Tar Heels potentially could have five talented starters playing well at the same time, with several bench players (Manuel, Scott, Sanders, Grant) who could blossom in less-pressurized roles.

In between those two extremes rests an ocean of possibilities. “Anything can happen” is something college basketball fans hear a lot every year, especially as March nears. In the case of UNC this season, the phrase applies particularly well.

Better Recruiters, Better Results

Any time a 3-9 football team signs one of the best classes in the ACC, as North Carolina did on Feb. 5, there's a very interesting tale to tell. The Tar Heels' surprising success story had many worthwhile angles — two extensive looks at UNC will appear in the next edition (and recruiting supplement) of the ACC Sports Journal — but one of the biggest was the evolving staff of third-year coach John Bunting.

When Bunting took the job at his alma mater on Dec. 11, 2000, he immediately had some difficult staff decisions to make. In the end, he retained only three of Carl Torbush's holdovers — Ken Browning, Gunter Brewer and Robbie Caldwell — and gave one of them new assignments. Everyone else was let go, including assistant head coach and defensive ends coach Donnie Thompson, a strong recruiter and 12-year UNC assistant.

Browning, the Tar Heels' defensive tackles coach for seven seasons and their defensive coordinator in 2000, became the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator upon Bunting's arrival. A widely respected two-time North Carolina high school coach of the year at nearby prep power Northern Durham, Browning originally joined Mack Brown's staff in 1994 and quickly injected new life into the Heels' all-important annual summer camp. (He still serves as its coordinator.) Brewer, hired away from Marshall by Torbush in 2000, remained in his position as receivers coach. Caldwell, another 2000 arrival, stayed to coach the offensive line. Browning and Brewer were regarded as particularly good recruiters.

Browning, 56, was the head coach and athletic director at Northern Durham for 18 years, and he remains as well-respected and well-connected in the high school coaching community as anyone. A powerful force on the recruiting trail within the state boundaries, he also has a long-standing presence in the all-important Tidewater area of Virginia. That talent-rich region always has been of particular interest to UNC, which can't sell home-state loyalty (as Virginia and Virginia Tech do) to the area's prospects but actually has the advantage of a pretty short drive. Chapel Hill is about three and a half hours from Norfolk, whereas Charlottesville is about three hours away and Blacksburg about five.

Brewer, 38, was the youngest member of Torbush's staff by almost a decade. Bunting originally was impressed with reports of Brewer's work ethic and energy level, along with his stated desire to make a long-term commitment to UNC. A 1987 Wake Forest graduate, Brewer had coached future NFL superstar Randy Moss at Marshall, where he also served as the recruiting coordinator for part of his tenure. The son of former Mississippi head coach Billy Brewer, Gunter Brewer was seen as the kind of guy who lived and breathed football, as well as someone who could relate to 17- and 18-year-old prospects. From the start, Bunting often took him along on key in-home visits.

Nobody blamed Bunting for UNC's poor recruiting year in 2001 (the Sports Journal ranked it seventh in the ACC), because very few programs enjoy successful classes during a coaching transition. Some eyebrows were raised in February 2002, however, when the Tar Heels put together only a mediocre recruiting campaign (rated sixth) in the aftermath of an 8-5 performance (in fall 2001) on the field. Even Bunting admitted he was concerned.

“The day after national signing day, we all looked at one another and said, ëWe weren't good enough,'” Bunting said. “So we re-evaluated everything we did. Each staff member was required to present me with a full report with how he thought recruiting went, how could we work ways to improve it.”

UNC quickly came up with an entirely new game plan and, obviously, it worked well. But just as important as the many tactical changes (stay tuned for more on those) were the additions of two more quality recruiters to go with Browning and Brewer.

After his first season in Chapel Hill, Bunting unexpectedly had the opportunity to make two more hires. Caldwell had left for Vanderbilt, where he joined a bunch of old, close friends on a brand-new staff. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, a brilliant game-planner but a disinterested recruiter, was encouraged to leave UNC after he showed interest in too many other jobs. He's now the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, which just signed an extremely disappointing class, and reportedly still has his eye on the NFL.

Bunting's hires — defensive backs coach Jim Fleming and offensive line coach Hal Hunter — proved he had learned his recruiting lesson. Both were relatively young but experienced coaches who embraced the importance of recruiting, rather than sneering at it. Hunter, 43, had coached at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. Fleming, 43, had just won the mid-major Division I-AA national championship as the head coach at Sacred Heart, and he had previous coaching stops at South Carolina and East Carolina.

In the final 2003 analysis, only Browning landed more of his primary targets (five from North Carolina, two from Tidewater) than Fleming and Hunter. Browning was the point man for, among others, three in-state prep All-Americans: defensive lineman Marcus Hands, defensive lineman Terry Hunter and wideout Mike Mason. Hunter was particularly important because he was pursued relentlessly (after an early commitment to UNC) by rival N.C. State, while Mason (who also committed very early) was a charismatic kid who proved to be an invaluable recruiter in his own right.

Fleming, who handles northwest North Carolina, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the junior college ranks for the Tar Heels, was the primary recruiter for five signees, including three All-Americans: juco cornerback Lionell Green, New Jersey receiver Jesse Holley and New Jersey linebacker Joe Kedra. Although Green was Carolina's only juco signee in the end, Fleming worked those channels more exhaustively than any UNC coach in the past, and that may pay more dividends in the future.

Hunter, who handles the Fayetteville/Sandhills areas of North Carolina in addition to western Florida and New Orleans, also was the primary recruiter for five signees. None of the five was regarded as a prep All-American, but the UNC coaches absolutely love Florida linebacker Larry Edwards, and Florida defensive tackle Donnell Livingston picked the Heels over FSU, NCSU and Nebraska, among many others. Edwards stuck with the Heels despite a very late offer from home-state Florida, his childhood favorite.

Nobody ever will know how much of Carolina's improvement on the recruiting trail came from a better plan, and how much came from better recruiters implementing that plan. Obviously, though, both parts of that puzzle had to come together well for a 3-9 team to land one of the best recruiting classes in the ACC.