Tommy: Reflections in the Mirror

Excitement is in the air in Chapel Hill

As we near the dog days of summer, the excitement and anticipation of another Carolina sports season is starting to heat up.

For those that follow just the Tar Heel football and basketball teams, late March to late August can last an eternity. The Internet and the explosion of high school recruiting coverage for both major sports have eased the withdrawal symptoms somewhat. But, there's only so much Darrell Linebacker and Pete Jumpshot can do to ease the suffering of those that live for Saturdays in Kenan and ACC wars in the Smith Center.

The upcoming seasons in both sports bring with them a level of excitement from the fan base that I personally have not seen as a member of the Inside Carolina staff, this being the beginning of my fifth year.

Sure, heading into the 1998 football season, many light blue fans thought the Tar Heels had finally become a big time program and 1998 would continue the impressive run that Mack Brown's last two years started. The die hard fans worried about the selection of Carl Torbush as head coach coupled with the graduation losses, but for the most part, Carolina had arrived on the gridiron. Someone forgot to tell Travis Prentice and Miami (Ohio) about the Carolina arrival and the Heels were rudely bounced back down the totem pole to mediocrity.

Anticipation has always been high for Carolina basketball because after all, Carolina is Carolina. But after Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison left town, things have been a little different. Carolina was expected to be a good team and until last year, the Heels came through.

This summer, things are a bit different. The buzz is back again. Fans of UNC are excited about both football and basketball season. They are excited because the upcoming season brings a chance for Carolina to take a big step forward in football and a chance to regain what was lost during the 8-20 campaign in basketball.

I speak to a lot of Carolina fans on a regular basis. To a man, those fans are excited about the upcoming seasons, but for different reasons. I'll begin on the hardwood.

Carolina basketball has suffered some big shots to its collective psyche in the last year. There's no need to rehash the past season or its immediate aftermath. That horse has been beaten to dust.

What is interesting are the recent comments by Jawad Williams. Jawad's comments to IC's Ben Sherman (link), following his words to the Daily Tar Heel several months ago, signal what may be a fundamental change in Carolina basketball. In a way never before seen at Carolina, Coach Matt Doherty, at least outwardly, has allowed the players to speak out and voice opinions about the state of the program in their words. Rarely has a player spoken so plainly about the program and certainly no rising sophomore has done so. To have that happen even five years ago would have been unheard of.

Whether Williams' comments were good or bad for the program has been debated with those on both sides providing valid arguments for their cause. Regardless of which side you take, it's hard not to admit that seeing how things unfold should be very interesting to watch.

Couple that aspect and the plethora of talent coming in, needless to say, this year's excitement emanates from the young men that will put on the jersey instead of the men in suits on the sidelines this November more so than in any recent season.

The football Tar Heels have the talent to succeed on the field. But unless you follow the two Tar Pit message boards here at InsideCarolina.com or are ‘in the know' in Chapel Hill, you wouldn't know it. The national and local media are simply overlooking Carolina's talent and relying on what was lost for their predictions rather than what has been gained. "The Heels lost a ton on defense" is what they say. "Carolina's receivers will not be as big a strength as some think" or "CJ Stephens and Darian Durant won't have time to throw" some think. All valid worries from afar.

What is not questioned is who captains the ship. John Bunting. I've followed Carolina sports for many years and cannot recall the universal love for a coach not named Smith as Coach Bunting has enjoyed on the Chapel Hill campus.

Though only heading into his second year, Bunting has shown the ability to rally his troops in times of adversity during the season, handle the pressures of dealing with discipline among 100 plus players and, despite last February's signing day disaster, recruit with the big boys.

So while the prognosticators predict gloom and doom for the Heels because of the massive talent losses, those that keep a close watch expect great things because of the men standing on the sidelines and in the press box. They will get the best out of every player that steps on to the Kenan Stadium turf wearing the Carolina blue.

Same school, different sports, mirror images, same goals. Plenty of excitement and anticipation surrounding both.

The excitement comes to a head on a hot August Saturday afternoon just 45 days away as Coach Bunting and troops square off against those 1998 party crashing Redhawks of Miami (Ohio).


Tommy Ashley can be reached at carolina93@nc.rr.com.

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