Thad's Offseason Thoughts

After the personnel events of this spring, pundits peddling pessimism about North Carolina's prospects for 2001-2002 deserve no gold stars for special insight.

On paper, Carolina has better talent than only 4 ACC schools (at most), and while I would estimate that Carolina might have roughly equal talent to what Wake Forest and Virginia return, the Heels will rely on freshmen much more than those veteran teams. A fourth or fifth place finish in the conference in 2002 would not necessarily be under-achievement for next year's Tar Heels.

And so I think it is on the whole probably not a bad thing that some fans are already gearing up for a long, hard season starting next November. It could indeed be a long year--a year that severely tests North Carolina fans' patience and capacity to steadfastly stand by their team and coaches amidst adversity.

What happens on the court next year might be hard enough for Carolina fans to deal with. Which is why I hope Carolina fans also spare themselves from a second round of pain, this time self-inflicted, if things get tough in 2002: namely, the blame game.

What's wrong with the blame game? First, constant arguments pointing fingers at different people associated with Carolina basketball, players, coaches, or otherwise, is inherently divisive and dispiriting, and makes the experience of being a fan needlessly unpleasant. Second, it can create a climate of negativity around a program which makes life harder for the actual participants. Third, the very notion of casting blame implies that fans have a right to "accuse," as if fans were entitled to a certain number of wins each year.

Fourth, the truth is that the present personnel "crisis" facing Carolina basketball is primarily the result of unintended consequences, bad luck, and twists in direction that no one could have foreseen, not the result of anyone's conscious bad decisions.

By way of making that case, we should start by observing that twice in the last six years Carolina has faced personnel challenges equivalent to what Matt Doherty will face in 2002, with probably 5 of his top 7 players from 2001 unavailable. In both 1995-96 and 1998-99, as a result of jumps to the NBA, Carolina lost of four of their top six players from the previous seasons, as well as practically all of its offensive punch. Those 1996 and 1999 teams both returned veteran duos (Calabria and McInnis in 1996, Okulaja and Cota in 1999), and they both had excellent freshmen capable of contributing immediately, just as Carolina still has Capel and Lang for 2002 as well as a good rookie class.

And both those 1996 and 1999 teams ended up doing pretty well by any reasonable standard--20-plus wins, and stirring wins over top 10 teams in both years--although it wasn't always pretty and both teams had crushing disappointments in March (the loss to Clemson in the 1996 ACC Tournament, the Weber State game in 1999.) But despite those unpleasant moments, probably the average Carolina fan right now would be perfectly satisfied if told that the 2002 team could provide as many wins and as many fun moments as the 1996 and 1999 teams did. I know I would be.

But there are three reasons why that moderately optimistic scenario might not come to pass, and why Carolina conceivably could end up in uncharted waters in the won-loss department next year, waters which might tempt some fans to enter into the blame game.

First, unlike the 1996 and 1999 teams, the 2002 team will not have, at least initially, an established veteran point guard. That's a fact. And that fact largely flows from an event that most Carolina fans were jubilant about in March 1998, when tenacious recruiting by the Carolina staff persuaded the national high school basketball player of the year to break his oral commitment to Virginia and sign with North Carolina. Ronald Curry's signing, famously, impacted subsequent recruiting decisions, and when it became apparent after the 1999 season that Curry impact on the basketball court would not be as dramatic as perhaps expected it was too late to decide now that Carolina should recruit over him out of the high school class of ‘99. Things got worse when a football injury took Curry out for a year and damaged his once-potent vertical jump.

After a credible, if somewhat limited year as a starter at the point, now it looks like Curry has decided to cast his lot with football once and for all. Two partial and decidedly unspectacular seasons from Curry at the point, if that's what it turns out to be, would be by any measure a disappointment, relative to expectations when Curry arrived. But it's not obvious to me who, if anyone, should be "blamed" (other than maybe past offensive lines) for what has transpired.. One should keep in mind that hindsight is 20/20, and that I don't recall anyone stating that Curry wouldn't cut it as a top point guard after the Hampton native was MVP of the McDonald's game in 1998. (Indeed, in the fall of 1998, the UNC campus was abuzz with absurd but highly entertaining rumors purporting to describe Ed Cota's utter inability to get the ball upcourt against Curry in preseason drills.) Maybe Curry's basketball career in Chapel Hill (including his struggles with his outside shot) would have taken a different trajectory had Oscar Davenport not gotten injured at the outset of the 1998 season, thrusting Curry into a starter's role and keeping him away from basketball---but there's little use in playing the "what if" game now.

The upshot of the Curry saga is that instead of having an experienced junior or senior point guard in 2002, Carolina will probably have either Adam Boone or Brian Morrison running things. Both were highly desired high school players and are potentially really good college players (and no, I wouldn't have rather had Omar Cook.) It's not out of the question that one will step up and really emerge as a confident, quality presence at the point. To the extent that doesn't happen, however, Carolina's chances of duplicating the accomplishments of 1996 and 1999 could be threatened.

Second, unlike in 1996 or 1999, Carolina doesn't have a seasoned veteran as head coach with decades of sideline experience in milking the best out of what one has and pulling out more than one's share of close wins.. Matt Doherty has other things going for him that can offset that relative inexperience, and every indication is he will he accept the challenge of next year without complaint and with maximal vigor, fully intent on exceeding the media's expectations. Whether that happens or not, however, it is simply inappropriate to "blame" Doherty in any strong sense if Carolina doesn't win quite as many close ones next year as in the past, or even if Carolina is on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble in early March.. The relevant time frame for evaluating Doherty's coaching job is the longer haul, three to four years down the road. This does not mean, of course, that specific decisions made by the Tar Heel head coach about tactics or personnel and so forth are beyond critical observation, but it does mean that (as far as I'm concerned at least), whatever happens next year should not alter the presumption that Doherty is going to be a very successful coach in the long run.

Thirdly, again unlike 1996 and 1999, there is the simple fact that Doherty didn't recruit most of the players he will have to work with in 2002. This observation cuts both ways: I seriously doubt that Bill Guthridge in his staff in their wildest dreams thought that the players they recruited would end up being coached in Chapel Hill by Matt Doherty, and it seems to me to be the heighth of silliness to blame the prior staff for signing players who may not be perfect fits for the desired playing style of a successor that very few people expected. And it is equally correct to point out that, as suggested just above, the fullest test of Doherty as a head coach can only come when he has all his own pieces in place.

The supposed mismatch between what Doherty's ideal team would be and the players he has available (players many, many coaches would love to have) is again simply a product of circumstance, not a matter on which it is appropriate to speak in terms of "blame." (Similarly, if as many think, a personality clash between Forte and Doherty did in fact hasten the sophomore's exit--and I must say Forte gave a quote or two to the press about his head coach this spring utterly unlike anything I've ever heard said by a Carolina player--it's wiser to chalk the exit up to the transition costs of moving to a new regime rather than think in terms of "blame.")

In the meantime, there might prove to be some tension between what playing styles, with the players on hand, would win the most games in 2002, and what playing style Doherty would like to see in the long haul. Doherty proved in 2001 that he is a pragmatist in sticking, by and large, with a halfcourt offense, relatively contained defense. But the door is quite open in 2002 to move to a quicker style of play emphasizing turnover-creation and fast break offense. Whether that will be the best thing for next year's team in terms of wins, I certainly don't know yet, and perhaps no one will know until some ways into practice next fall.

Of course, these three factors–the point guard slot, relative sideline inexperience, and the mismatch in style between players recruited by Guthridge and Smith and those signed by Doherty--are not only the reasons why 2002 could turn out to be even tougher than previous years after Carolina has been blindsided by personnel losses. Frontcourt depth might be an issue, as a result of both Jason Parker, despite enormous effort invested by the previous staff, being in Kentucky, and of Matt Doherty's staff missing on all their center targets this year, despite enormous efforts of their own.. Consistent on-court leadership will be an issue too: Carolina had quite a bit of it in 1999 with Okulaja as a senior, but have been lacking it ever since, a situation which 2002's seniors must take it upon themselves to change. But these issues, too, are not productively described or understood through a framework of having to "blame" someone or other.

This discussion about next year's prospects is simply by way of arguing for the fourth reason why I hope Carolina fans avoid playing the blame game if the 2002 season is as frustrating as some fear--assuming that there someone must be "blamed" is not a very cogent way of understanding the twists of events that led to the present situation. But to reiterate this reason is not only and maybe not the most compelling reason to stay away from the blame game. The best reasons are that the blame game creates animosities amongst fan that adds to the pain of losing, that it can lead to a negative atmosphere around a program. And the act of casting blame often casts an unflattering light on the ingratitude of Carolina fans.

All of the above, of course, is premised on the idea that next season is going to be really, really rough. That's not a terrible working assumption for Carolina fans to have, and I don't think Carolina's players or coaches should be trying to inflate fans' expectations for next season--far better to expect little and be pleasantly surprised. (At the same time, however, you don't want to see the players start believing the media and the fans when they say Carolina can't be any good.. I think that's a pretty remote danger.)

But it's hardly a given that 2002 will be the rough and raw, traumatic experience so many now expect. Why not? First, Matt Doherty and his staff are going to work their tail off, try their hardest, and encourage their players to do likewise. Second, any number of events might come about in terms of player development in the next six months which would substantially improve Carolina's roster over what it looks like on paper:

* Adam Boone and/or Brian Morrison could show marked improvement and prove to be a reliable point guard. (And Jon Holmes is really only a consistent jump shot away from being able to push those two.)

* Brian Bersticker, lost on the bench in 2001, could emerge as a potent offensive weapon and a good shot-blocker.

* Neil Fingleton's conditioning might improve to the point where he could become a contributor. I don't expect the big guy ever to be the trailing finisher on fast breaks, but he could start some fast breaks for his teammates by blocking shots. (And I'll say this: I strongly suspect that if Carolina fans go out of their way to be especially supportive of Fingleton's efforts when he does get to step on the floor next year and make him a fan favorite, it could have a major positive impact on his long-run development.)

* Melvin Scott could come in and light it up as a freshman on the perimeter, and could also challenge for point guard time.

* Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel could come in and make major impacts defensively and on the boards, and in the best case scenario, at least one of them might become a consistent scorer.

* Kris Lang might finally reach his full potential as a versatile, reliable inside and mid-range scorer that can be turned to night in and night out.

* Jason Capel might make the same leap in offensive production as a senior that Ademola Okulaja made from 1998 to 1999.

* Carolina might be able to pull out a game as an underdog early in the season and/or at the start of the ACC in a way that provides a psychological boost to the whole team.

* And either a change of heart or some other event might persuade either Ronald Curry or Julius Peppers that their self-interest coincides with wearing a basketball uniform for a couple of months.

Any single one of those events (and one could list others) might not be very probable in itself, but taken together, the odds that at least a couple of the favorable developments just mentioned will in fact unfold is pretty high.

And regardless of which of those possibilities does or does not come to pass, it's going to a very, very interesting season in 2002 , one well worth looking forward to, for at least three reasons:

First, assuming Carolina scores more than 30 points a game next year, a lot of players next year, both new and returning, are going to be making contributions to the team far beyond what they've made in the past. Watching new players come in and try to make an impact, and seeing older players blossom when given the opportunity are two of the major reasons why college sports is inherently interesting (although in some cases of course, perhaps this one, it can be a curse to be too "interesting"!)

Second, odds are very high that Carolina will make major strides towards a more aggressive defensive style and a more up-tempo approach overall, which will be fun to watch--although I might advise spectators in the front couple of rows of the Smith Center next year to be alert for errant basketballs flying in their direction from time to time, at least in the early going.

And third, it may well be an interesting test of the depth of Carolina fans' loyalty. Matt Doherty has more than enough on his plate for 2001-2002, and I hope having to deal with griping fans isn't added to it.

And I think Carolina fans' own experience of next year, whatever it brings, will be more pleasant to the extent that folks recognize that the personnel "crisis" which may produce difficulties next year is a result of unintended consequences, bad luck, unforeseen and unforeseeable changes in the direction of the program, as well as, to be sure, normal human fallibility by people trying as hard as they could. (No coaching regime, not Smith's, not Guthridge's, not Doherty's, ever bats 1.000 in its efforts to prepare for the future.)

That's why I hope Carolina fans will forget the blame game and abstain from turning analysis of on-court difficulties in 2002 into criminal investigations. The challenge of a young coach with very young players facing what's expected to be an uphill climb in the ACC should instead be one that brings fans together--and it can be if the fans will it to be so.

Every year in English professional soccer, the teams that finish in the bottom three of the 20-squad top division get "relegated" to a lower division. Relegation is about the worst calamity that can befall a club--imagine what it'd feel like to get kicked out of the ACC if you finished last one year. And every May brings the specter of players lying prostrate on the ground and adult fans openly weeping when they realize that their team has been condemned to take the drop. But if one keeps watching, one will also notice that after a few tears, the fans of the relegated side will stand together to applaud their team's efforts and to sing club songs.

While there are definitely aspects of the club soccer fan culture that I'm glad are not part of collegiate sports, I do admire the sense of unshakeable, unconditional loyalty in the face of the worst nightmare expressed by the fans of those relegated teams. Carolina certainly doesn't face the threat of "relegation" next year, but there is the possibility that Carolina fans could be in for quite a lot of pain next year.

If that happens, I'll try not to dwell on those fans who choose to file out of the Smith Center early (perhaps to go rip on a player or someone else on the Internet). Instead, I'll think about the fans who hang around until the last buzzer and maybe even shout out an encouraging word at the players when they walk to their lockers, who insist on staying positive, and who start thinking about how Carolina might win the next game, not about playing the blame game--a game that, in the end, no one can really win.


*Article on Thad's upcoming book!

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