It also served as a strong statement that, yes, there is still talent in Chapel Hill, and yes, on any given night, this 2001-02 edition of the Tar Heels is capable of beating quality opponents.
Just about everyone who follows Carolina basketball understood that this was not a team with realistic Final Four or conference championship potential. Such aspirations flew out the window when Joseph Forte decided he was ready for the NBA last spring. At that point it became clear that the most reasonable measuring stick for whether Carolina had a successful season in 2002 is whether the Heels qualified for a 28th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
I don't recall Matt Doherty or anyone else throwing up their hands when the preseason rolled around and saying, "Gee, this current group of players just can't cut it no matter how well I coach them or how hard they try. We'll just have to accept this is a down year." Nor did outside observers look at Carolina's returning roster and say, "That team is definitely going to struggle." Instead, the national media made Carolina a consensus top 20 pick.
It can be argued with considerable justice that the preseason rankings, always an inexact science, gave Carolina more than its fair share of the benefit of the doubt based on Carolina's historic success in staying competitive at a high level even during previous quasi-rebuilding years. And perhaps some voters were thinking about where Carolina would fit in the national picture at the end of the season, understanding that they would be vulnerable in the early stages of the campaign (especially if none of the returning point guards stepped up their game to take control of the position in the early going).
But the bottom line is, Carolina has talent -—although much of it is young and will need time to flourish. And the reason that Carolina now has a losing record is not because they lost to teams with superior skill in Hampton, Davidson, and College of Charleston. The Tar Heels lost those games because they did not play up to their potential -— combined with the strange fact of sports psychology that a team of limited talent that knows it is playing up to its ability and executing its game plan often will have the edge in a close game against a team with superior talent that is struggling to play up to its ability. Young players who sense things are not going as they should have a tendency to either tighten up on the one hand, or try to force things on the other, and that's exactly what happened in those early losses to Hampton and Davidson.
Quite obviously the biggest problem with Carolina's play early on has been dreadful, and I do mean dreadful, offensive execution. Here are Carolina's stats in the three losses to teams outside the top 100: 34% shooting from the floor, 26% shooting from three-point range. In contrast, Pete Gillen's first Virginia club in 1999, which pulled up the bottom of the league in a number of categories (including shooting and league wins), shot 42.4 percent from the floor and 32 percent from the three point line.
In short, Carolina's offensive performance in the upset losses fell far, far below what constitutes normal offensive efficiency for even weak, play-in game caliber ACC teams. That's a fact. One might draw three possible conclusions from those performances: First, that Carolina has worse offensive players than any ACC team in recent memory. Second, that Matt Doherty is the worst coach of offense to enter the league in recent memory. Third, that those performances did not reflect what this Carolina team is actually capable of doing but were the result of team-wide tightness and pressing, along with a lack of early season team chemistry.
It's not surprising that some fans and observers have gravitated towards variants of one or the other of the first two explanations in trying to account for the early season losses. But I think both of those conclusions are wrong, and that the third conclusion is the most accurate (even though this team clearly has talent limitations and even though, as Doherty has acknowledged, the coaching staff must accept some responsibility for the poor offensive execution early, especially against the zone).
Carolina now has two solid offensive performances to point to —- Georgia Tech and St. Joe's -— showing that the team is capable of putting the ball in the basket. Obviously, Brian Morrison's contribution in those two fine wins compared to his contributions in the losses is probably the biggest single difference between the pretty good Carolina team seen in those wins and the "why am I making myself watch this?" outfit seen in most of the other games. But Matt Doherty and numerous players hit the nail on the head after the St. Joe's game when they spoke of how much easier it is to execute offensively and to shoot the basketball when players are relaxed and playing without fear.
"Intensity" is often invoked by fans and writers trying to describe a good basketball team. If intensity means simply physical effort and desire, however, it is not really that helpful a term in describing what makes for a good offensive basketball team. What matters for good offensive basketball is mental focus (another part of what many call "intensity"), good decision-making and shot selection, confidence in what you and your teammates are doing, and feeling relaxed enough to make the plays one is capable of making. Even teams without tremendous one-on-one offensive players will get good shots if they play with those qualities -- and they'll knock ‘em down too.
Mental focus, good decision-making, chemistry, and confidence -— four factors too often absent from the first month of this Carolina season, and four factors that simply getting more fired up is not going to help improve much. Mental focus and good decision-making are skills that can be developed with experience and good coaching, and team chemistry should also come with time. But confidence in one's ability as a basketball player is probably the most important of these four factors —- especially for this team at this time.
And the best thing that happened this weekend is, Matt Doherty somehow helped his players relax just enough to regain that confidence that yes, they can do it, and yes they are capable of shooting well and playing well. Shooting and scoring will in turn usually have positive consequences for the quality of effort on defense and on the boards. What needs to happen next is for the players to bolster that still-fragile confidence in the two games next week in Chapel Hill, and then enter ACC play knowing it is capable of beating quality opposition when it plays up to its abilities.
Obviously, it's going to be an uphill struggle for Carolina to get back into the NCAA picture at all and to round into the kind of team that so many preseason writers (and surely Matt Doherty) had in mind back on October 15. Frankly, I'm not (yet) optimistic, especially if the best point guard on campus decides not to report to the Smith Center early in the new year.
And, I would strongly insist that what is really remarkable and wonderful about Carolina basketball is not defined by any of the "streaks." Nor do I think that the Smith/Guthridge legacy of winning with class and while treating people the right way is going to be smudged in the slightest by one bad season, disappointing and tough to swallow as that may be, or that Carolina fans really have much right to complain about this year, if they pause to consider the broader context for even a moment.
Finally, I don't think the long-term future, or Doherty's as head coach, will be jeopardized if this 2002 team falls short, or even far short, of its goals, so long as the young players on this team who should help form the nucleus of an eventual top ten team in future seasons show improvement over the course of the year.
But this year does matter for its own sake, and as a test of some of the most important principles long associated with Carolina basketball. One of those principles is maintaining a high standard of excellence, no matter what circumstances may bring: be those circumstances injuries, suspensions, early NBA draft entries, losing players to academics, or any other personnel-related issue. A second of those principles is not making excuses and not pointing fingers at others when there are failures and disappointments.
Matt Doherty has done an admirable job in sticking with both those principles so far this season, (as opposed to making the implausible claim, for instance, that his team lost at home to the likes of Davidson because they don't have the talent or ability to beat those teams most of the time). He knows that with more confidence, a few more tastes of winning, and a few individual players learning how to perform consistently, this Carolina team might yet make a lot of people proud before the end of the season.
I don't think the way forward is going to be a straight one -— there are likely to be more painful nights in which the Tar Heels cannot for the life of them score. But this team has the potential to notch some more quality wins and even make a run at meeting its core preseason goal of NCAA play. While I'm not at all sure that goal will be achieved, it's both inaccurate and demeaning to the Tar Heel players to already tell them, "You're not good enough to do it."
I'll bet my bottom dollar that Matt Doherty will never say those words to his players this season.
Carolina fans shouldn't either.