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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One View on Duke-Carolina (and Bruce Pearl's Jacket)

No doubt that Duke is a preeminent hoops team and that J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams are player-of-the-year candidates. Last night's win against a feisty Carolina team in Chapel Hill demonstrates that despite wearing a target on their backs every time they play (i.e., what team doesn't get up for the Blue Devils?), Duke kept its calm, overcame a Tar Heel comeback, and emerged with a narrow victory. Here's the link.

To be fair, that's the primary story. Duke won the game, Duke is the team to beat in the ACC, and Duke will be a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Duke is a such an excellent program that we take it for granted, whether or not you like Duke, Coach K or the Cameron Crazies. Fans shouldn't take Duke for granted, but they've been so good for so long that they've become akin to the free space on the bingo card or a generic term for hoops excellence.

That said, there's another compelling story in all of this. Carolina lost its top 7 players last year, a group that averaged something like 85 ppg, and a group that yielded four first-round draft picks, of whom 3 were lottery picks (and the fourth was picked 14th, just missing the lottery). Most programs would have a sub-.500 season or fall off a cliff. The great institutions, though, find a way to transcend, and that's what the Heels, led by Coach Roy Williams, are doing. He had a good recruiting year last year and has had another good recruiting year this season.

Right now, the young Heels are 14-6 overall and 5-4 in the conference. (Scroll down this link for the ACC's standings). Of players who are getting more than 10 minutes a game, there are four frosh, one soph, two juniors and two seniors. Three freshmen play very meaningful roles on this team. I'm not an expert on the ACC like other blogs are (including ACC Basketblog and Dave Sez, which are linked on this blog), but what Carolina has done this year is very impressive.

Naturally, teams don't get handicapped the way golfers do in the average charity golf outing, so Duke still dominates. However, relatively speaking, were there handicapping here, Carolina's achievements this year would rival Duke's. The pressures are different. Coach K has the pressure of delivering what's expected -- a national title. Coach Williams has the pressure of honoring last season's national title by not letting his program disintegrate and by making it as competitive as possible. Based upon those measuring sticks, both are doing quite well.

Duke remains one of the teams to beat for the national title this year. My hunch is that Carolina will build on its successes and end up in the Big Dance, perhaps as a #5, 6 or 7 seed, where they will be very dangerous. Laundry alone doesn't guarantee you a title (see, for example, Kentucky and Louisville), but laundry plus tradition plus talent plus whatever special sauce Chef Williams is sprinkling on his squad will put a time-honored program back into the NCAA Tournament.

We are a month away from March, but the excitement is beginning to build. I, for one, would love to see a contrast in colors and a Tennessee-Carolina matchup in the Sweet 16, especially if we can get Tennessee mentor Bruce Pearl to don the jacket he wore last night (and, apparently, earlier in the season too) at the Vols matchup against Kentucky in Louisville. If we could get Roy Williams to wear a Carolina-blue equivalent, the matchup will be a colorful one indeed.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...


Better yet, root for an Illinois/Tennessee game in the tournament. If Bruce Webber wears the Illini orange colored sports coat he wore last year and Pearl wears the Tennessee orange sports coat he wore the other night, courtside will look like a road construction zone with traffic cones...

12:39 PM  
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