So, here we sit, less than a week from Selection Sunday with tournaments going on all over the place. What makes the next few days so cool is that all the bracketology becomes pretty meaningless because upsets blow up what everyone has been speculating about for the past two months.
That said, this past weekend certainly provided us all with a raft of interesting story lines.
I begin with Duke-North Carolina, not because Duke finally beat the Tar Heels at home to end a four game Cameron losing streak or because Duke tied for the ACC regular season title with Maryland by completely embarrassing the Tar Heels.
To me, the fascinating story line is this game was Carolina. Duke is good and will be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed depending on what happens this week in conference tournament play around the country. Fine. I still don’t think the Blue Devils are a Final Four team. They’re too dependent offensively on their big three and if Brian Zoubek gets into foul trouble—as he often does—they’re in trouble against a team with a big front line. Who ever thought anyone would write that line: ‘If Brian Zoubek gets in foul trouble…’ The Plumlee brothers aren’t ready to be go-to guys in March. But we’ll see. One never knows how brackets will play out or who will get upset along the way.
What was tough to believe on Saturday night was how quickly Carolina disappeared. The game was pretty much over at 9-3. It isn’t as if the Tar Heels are often intimidated by loud crowds and the days when the Duke students (I refuse to call them by their cliché nickname) were clever enough to really distract anyone have long since passed. (“Our House?” That’s the best they can do? Last I looked it was Tyler Hansbrough’s house for four straight years.)
Carolina had nothing to lose Saturday and everything to gain. All the pressure was on Duke: four game home losing streak to the Tar Heels; needing to win to tie Maryland for the ACC title; senior night; not to mention the endless ESPN hype. Certainly Roy Williams isn’t scared to coach in Cameron. He sat next to Dean Smith on many a night when Dean told his players to, “listen for the silence,” at the end of the game and then walked off with a big smile on his face listening to just that. Even with the loss on Saturday, Ole Roy is 4-3 in Cameron.
So why did his players look scared? Why did they simply die when Duke hit three early three’s? The score was 53-26 at halftime. Are you kidding? Was that North Carolina or North Carolina-Asheville in the visiting uniforms? I know Carolina’s had injury problems this season and there’s no doubting the talent drop-off with Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green gone. But there’s still enough talent to be better than this team has been. The only team Virginia’s beaten in the last month is Carolina—in Chapel Hill, by double-digits.
Look, these aren’t Matt Doherty’s Tar Heels, the group that went 8-22 in 2002. This is a team coached by ROY WILLIAMS, who is deservedly in the Hall of Fame, who has won two national titles in five years and who has been to SEVEN Final Fours, which puts him behind only Dean Smith, John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. His numbers as a coach in 22 years are ridiculous.
In the last few weeks Roy has taken to pummeling himself in public, to doubting himself and his team to somehow comparing the way he feels about this season to what happened in Haiti. Frankly, it’s been sad to watch, especially if (like me) you like and respect Roy.
I’m not the least bit worried about him or his program long term. The fact that Ed Davis was having a disappointing sophomore season even before he got hurt may lead him to return next year. With Harrison Barnes signed up to join the cast, with Davis and some of the other young players back, Carolina should be much better—although Roy needs to find a point guard considerably better than Larry Drew II.
In the meantime though, it will be fascinating to see the approach the Tar Heels take to their Thursday evening first round ACC Tournament matchup with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets may need to win two games in the tournament to make the NCAA field and if they fail, the argument can be made that they’ve had the most disappointing season of any team in the country given their talent level.
Tech will be—should be—a desperate team. Which Carolina team shows up? The one that won at Wake Forest nine days ago or the one that was back-pedaling the minute it set foot on the floor two days ago in Cameron? It’s actually okay for the Tar Heels to lose this game but if I was Ole Roy the next three days would be pretty miserable for my players. I’d call them a few names Coach Smith never used and challenge them to prove that they have pride in the name on the front of their uniform.
To me, the last two months have been shocking. I would not have been surprised if Carolina had been a bubble team this season. But a bubble team for the NIT? To quote the wise man John Patrick McEnroe Jr: You can NOT be serious.
Meanwhile, for me, the most disappointing outcome of the weekend was Winthrop’s upset of Coastal Carolina in the final of the Big South tournament. Nothing against Randy Peele, who is a good guy and has done a nice job replacing Gregg Marshall down there. Winthrop has now made the tournament nine of the last 12 years which is a great run at any school.
But Cliff Ellis making it back to the NCAA Tournament at the age of 64 after being fired at Auburn in 2004—one year after taking the Tigers to the sweet sixteen—would have been a wonderful story. Like Bobby Cremins at College of Charleston who came back six years after leaving Georgia Tech, Ellis came back after a three year sabbatical and did a wonderful job rebuilding the program in Conway, South Carolina. Now the Chanticleers will settle for the NIT, which is nice but not the same as The Dance.
Six days to Selection Sunday. It will be fun. As I’ve said here before, savor it, because if the NCAA has its way and ESPN throws enough Disney Dollars in its direction, this will be the last one where truly good teams will be on the bubble. A year from now a team like Carolina—16-15 and 5-11 in the conference—will go into the ACC Tournament figuring one win will wrap up a bid. Compelling stuff, huh?
Oh well, we can worry about that later. In the meantime, I’m psyched for the MAAC Final tonight. And then for The Southern Conference Final. Not to mention The Patriot League on Friday. You get the idea.