By Rob Daniels, Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
November 11, 2002
CHAPEL HILL Speaking to a booster group several months back, North Carolina coach Matt Doherty acknowledged that enemy fans were reveling in the Tar Heels' eventual 8-20 season. He followed that up with a vow. When the hammer falls, Doherty said, it's gonna fall hard.
It's unreasonable to expect a forceful slam of head to nail the traditional Carolina method of punishment this season, but there probably won't be another whiff, either. Exactly how hard the contact will be should depend on whether the Heels can defend and rebound with one credible post player, the quality of their shot selection and the health of that lone post guy, freshman Sean May.
Generally speaking, however, this is one of the most anticipated seasons in the program's history. No, that isn't an exaggeration. Throughout a half-century of the Heels' national relevance, fans surely have been excited, but they haven't felt quite what they're feeling now. They've known what to expect, namely a team that can contend for the NCAA championship. And they've never had to wait for a season to start so they can fend off jokes about the previous year.
Now there is an unprecedented combination of buzz, intrigue and slight doubt, which comes with the arrival of three talented freshman starters and the desire to make amends.
Dynamic point guard Raymond Felton especially Felton and fiery swingman Rashad McCants got most of the attention from the recruiting media, but May is the most important player on this team. If ever a man was an island, the 6-8, 272-pound May is Australia.
The only other big guys on the team are freshmen Damion Grant and Byron Sanders, two projects who weren't even an afterthought last fall. But when the ACC's vital recruiting time came and went, and May was the only big body slated to be in the program in 2002-03, Doherty had to scramble. Grant and Sanders may become good players in time, but 10 years ago they'd have wound up in the Atlantic 10.
With May, don't be shocked to see a one-in, four-out offensive arrangement. It worked pretty well for the Carlos Boozer-less Duke team in 2001, and a post-deficient N.C. State lineup used it successfully at times last season, so the concept in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad idea. It just hasn't been used at Carolina very often over the years.
The Heels may have to be patient in getting their shots, however. The kick-out from a double-teamed post guy isn't going to happen all that often. Either dribble penetration or long-range attempts will be critical, which is where Felton and McCants come into play.
Felton, as anybody with an internet connection knows, is the most anticipated recruit to enter Carolina in years. Not only did he commit as a junior way back in March 2001 he steps unchallenged into the area of greatest UNC weakness a year ago, the point.
Felton is more than quick enough to make up for his height he's probably under 6-0, though listed a half-inch above that mark and a creative and forceful passer. Nobody should be surprised if he is among the league leaders in turnovers, however. That's because he'll have the ball in his hands a lot, and because it'll take everybody some time to get accustomed to playing with such a fast guy.
McCants is a dynamic presence whose first step and finishing ability will make him a viable wing target. His demonstrative nature, if left unchecked, quickly will make him UNC fans' favorite player and opponents' chief villain.
Another key cog in all of this is 6-8 Jawad Williams, who showed some offensive moves last season as a freshman but grabbed an unacceptably low 4.2 rebounds a game. Guards Edward Scott and Juan Dixon were among the many ACC players who beat him decisively in that category. Williams simply has to get tougher and stronger for the Heels to be successful, particularly in light of the power forward and center issues. In addition, he and Doherty, who said they've patched things up after Williams publicly criticized the coach's intense nature last spring, need to keep the communication lines open.
Melvin Scott, a slightly undersized wing guard who floated in and out of the rotation last year, is the fifth probable starter. Observers said he was on fire behind closed doors in the preseason, but they said that last October and November as well. He wound up with a year typical of an ACC freshman 40 percent shooting. Scott is a complementary player but could be a good one.
Jackie Manuel, who looked remarkably tentative at times as a freshman last year, nearly followed guards Adam Boone and Brian Morrison out the door last spring. It's unclear if Manuel is a reliable competitor at this level or a player destined to be phased out by recruiting.
The untold story of the highly regarded six-man recruiting class is David Noel, a 6-6 swingman who originally committed to UNC as a football player but changed sports. He'll be on a basketball grant next season, and one talent analyst who observed practice recently said he's the second-best post defender on the team. That doesn't speak well of Grant and Sanders, but it is a high compliment to Noel, a solid wide receiver in prep football who can play taller than his height.
Defensively, it would be a tremendous lift to this group if Noel can, in fact, pull that off. Carolina may have the backcourt people to press and trap as it did in Dean Smith's era, but you still have to have something of a threat in the back to play the whole floor.
There are a few ACC teams Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia and Maryland immediately come to mind that will try to bully the Heels with multiple big men. If May's hobbled or in foul trouble, somebody's going to have to play. There is no greater concern than this one for North Carolina.
A final verdict is hard to render. The ACC's sportswriters collectively picked the Heels seventh, which seems a bit low. The safest bet is to say UNC will be in contention for an NCAA bid come February. And, of course, if the Heels are remotely close to qualifying, the selection committee will be sorely tempted to give them the nod and make CBS happy.
Is that the hard falling of the hammer? No, but it's at least an audible tap, which is much better than what everyone saw and heard last year.
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