March 1, 2004 CHAPEL HILL Without a doubt, the 2003-04 North Carolina basketball team qualifies as a major disappointment thus far. It's just as clear that Roy Williams, the winningest active NCAA coach in the sport, won't be nominated for any awards after the up-and-down way his first season as the head coach of his alma mater unfolded during the regular season. But in a year when eight of the nine ACC fan bases (everyone but Duke) found something to complain about at some point in the season, Carolina supporters may have come up with the most absurd, ridiculous, delusional, time-to-seek-professional-help theories of all: Matt Doherty would have done a better job with this group of Tar Heels. This season proves that Doherty got a raw deal when he was forced to resign last year. Or, finally: There's no real difference between last year's team and this year's team.
Move over, Flat Earth Society. Step aside, cold fusion scientists. This one's a doozy.
Only the limits of time and space prevent a War and Peace-sized obliteration of such hypotheses, but let's start the memory resuscitation process here: By all accounts, including those of Doherty, university administrators and UNC players, if Doherty was still the coach in Chapel Hill this season, he would be directing a completely different team.
Here, then, is a more accurate way for omniscient fans to look at the situation. Ask not what Doherty would have done with a lineup of Raymond Felton, Melvin Scott, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams and Sean May. That's a completely imagination-based question, the equivalent of asking how playing on the moon might affect three-point percentages. Ask instead what Doherty would have done with a lineup of Felton (maybe), Jesse Holley, Reyshawn Terry, David Noel, Byron Sanders and a bench full of walk-ons. Answer: After just his fourth season at the helm, Doherty would have been able to lay claim to not one (2001-02) but two of the worst seasons in the history of one of the most proud and storied programs in the sport. Next question.
Many UNC fans have not been able to get past the Doherty resignation, at least in part because most national media outlets had portrayed (prior to the ACC Sports Journal's breaking the story) the Tar Heels' behind-the-scenes problems as a bunch of bad rumors last winter. In retrospect, it's clear that the national media (and many local writers) completely missed the Doherty saga, and it's not at all difficult to understand why. Their only sources of information throughout the drama were the players (who later admitted to a consistent pattern of deception keeping the problems in the family with their public comments) and Doherty, a hard-working coach and honest guy whose level of denial during his time at UNC has been compared to that of the married man who brags about the stability of his marriage one day and is completely shocked when he's handed divorce papers by his wife the next.
The Doherty supporters still yearn for more details about the actions and developments that led to the coach's departure, but what they forget is that those stories were going to come out only if the coach had retained his position. Only the ABC crowd would have enjoyed those potential headlines: Departing Players, Parents Speak Of UNC Nightmare. One extremely level-headed player on last year's team, who never criticized his coach publicly, told his family and friends: He turned what should have been the best experience of my life into the worst experience of my life. Not bad or frustrating or difficult, mind you, but the worst experience of the young man's life. Is that what still-curious UNC fans really want to see? Once Doherty was gone, of course, none of the previously complaining parties wanted to risk the appearance of dancing on his grave. In their eyes, their voices finally had been heard, and they wanted to be respectful in return.
To this day, plenty of people have an appreciation for the extreme level of dysfunction on display within the UNC basketball program in recent years current and former players, their parents, ex-coaches and friends, several journalists (some tortured with volumes of off-the-record information they can't use in print), many university administrators (although it's fair to ask why it took so long for them to see it), even Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and Phil Ford.
Interestingly, not one of the people in that group believes Doherty got a raw deal. Apparently, that position is reserved exclusively for one coach-in-denial, those who listen exclusively to said coach, and those who don't know the first thing about what was going on behind the scenes in Chapel Hill over the last three years.
Disappointment, But Improvement
Everyone agrees that this year's UNC team doesn't add up to the sum of its parts. Any bunch with the ACC's top scorer (McCants), best rebounder (May) and leading assist man (Felton) by the way, no conference team ever has had three different players in those positions should be better than 7-7 in the league entering March. Obviously, significant problems persist with chemistry, defense, leadership, toughness and depth.
But, again, those UNC fans who see no difference between the 2003-04 Tar Heels and last year's edition are offering more of an emotional response to their disappointment than a theory that can be backed up by the facts.
A year ago at this time, Carolina was 14-13. The Heels were coming off a season in which they were ranked No. 118 in the final RPI numbers, and they were on their way to a No. 52 finish. They ranked seventh in the league or worse in scoring offense, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, scoring defense, field goal percentage defense, three-point defense and rebounding margin. They ultimately suffered double-digit margins of defeat at the hands of Illinois (27), Kentucky (17), Maryland (15), Georgia Tech (20), Maryland (40), Wake Forest (15) and Duke (12). They finished above only Clemson and Florida State in the conference standings. They missed the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, after 27 straight trips to the Big Dance.
Entering March, this year's Heels were 17-8 and (prior to beating N.C. State) ranked No. 16 nationally in the RPI. For non-numbers people, in the basketball world, the 36-place jump in RPI and .150-plus jump in winning percentage roughly represents the difference between Williams' (.799) or Dean Smith's (.776) or Mike Krzyzewski's (.743) career records and those of Pete Gillen (.649), Herb Sendek (.615) and Bucky Waters (.583).
This year's UNC team, despite its many defects, also has shown improvement in ways not reflected in wins and losses. Instead of sometimes giving up and yielding some of the worst defeats (see above) in school history, as they did over the last two seasons, the Tar Heels suffered their first eight defeats in 2003-04 by an average of about six points. Three of the losses came in overtime, one in triple OT.
The Heels remain a porous defensive team under Williams, but again, unlike in the last three years they improved in that department during the course of this season and excelled in many other areas of the game. Entering March, UNC ranked among the best in the ACC, and in some cases the nation, in scoring (first), assists (first), assist-turnover ratio (first), rebounding margin (first), steals (first), turnover margin (second) and field goal percentage (fourth).
Individually, as well, many of the Heels have shown improvement. No coach in America can offer a better example of a dramatic one-year turnaround than Williams has in Manuel. Under Doherty, Manuel was an absolute disaster an unhappy, undisciplined, turnover-prone, bad-shot-taking offensive liability whose big plays defensively often were balanced out by his mental miscues. Under Williams, Manuel is a still-limited but highly efficient scorer and rebounder and one of the best defenders in the ACC. The two-year numbers under Doherty: 38.3 field goal percentage, 142 three-point attempts, 126 assists, 132 turnovers. This year's numbers under Williams: 57.1 field goal percentage, eight three-point attempts, 47 assists, 20 turnovers. Another case closed.
Yes, UNC still has plenty of issues to address, including chemistry. This season, though, all of those problems are on the court, which means the talented Tar Heels are still with their coach, and they still believe they have a chance to do something special. By March, that wasn't the case in any of Doherty's three seasons in Chapel Hill, and it's hard to imagine a bigger and more important change than that for any program.