Certainly the opening 10 minutes against Penn State were among the most impressive performances by a Tar Heel team in a season opener ever, no matter the quality of opposition. Full credit to the players and staff for being fully prepared from the opening tip and taking just twenty seconds to send the Smith Center into a frenzy.
Even more credit goes to the Heels for pulling out an unlikely win against a good Rutgers club. Carolina had the best of all worlds Wednesday night: It's not often you can get a sometimes painful learning experience about what passes you can and cannot make in games against teams with comparable athleticism, and about how hard it can be to get good shots against a tough halfcourt defense, and still win the game! This club now has one hard-fought, come-from-behind win in its back pocket: to pull out a game like that is a great accomplishment for such a young team, and a sure confidence-booster the next time the Heels find themselves in a dire situation with 6 or 7 minutes to play.
The most natural reaction of most observers of this very young team will be to ooh and aah at the sheer talent of Carolina's three freshmen starters, a group which is really only rivaled in Carolina history by the Wallace-Stackhouse-McInnis class in terms of polished, ready-to-contribute basketball ability. But Carolina's start is down to more than just better individual talent on the court: here are four key factors to appreciate about this young team--and to continue to track as the season develops.
For all that last year's team did wrong, one thing it did right most of the time was try to play unselfish basketball--last year's edition, surprisingly, was third in the ACC in assists per game and had the highest percentage of field goals in the league created by assists. Throw in that same unselfish philosophy with better ballhandling and better finishing and you now have a pretty impressive looking offensive team, especially in transition situations.
Raymond Felton's 10 assists in the opener speak for themselves, but the attitude extended to the whole team this week: We saw Jawad Williams passing up the open foul-line jumper to find a teammate underneath, lots of good fast break distribution, and the impeccable Sean May repeatedly getting the ball in great scoring positions after a nice entry pass.
To be sure, some bad shots were taken. Carolina fans tutored in the always-pass-ahead-on-the-break philosophy of Dean Smith may have winced a bit when Rashad McCants eschewed passing the ball ahead to Jackie Manuel in order to get his 28th point on a dunk against Penn State, and against Rutgers, Felton, McCants, and Jawad Williams were all guilty of trying to force things once or twice.
But the basic orientation that this team is going to play unselfish has been clearly established. A good test, surely forthcoming in New York, will be whether Carolina can stick to this orientation when the Heels confront teams with truly suffocating half court defenses and enough discipline to deny Carolina tons of fast break points, easy cuts for layups, or drives to the basket. It's encouraging that after the rough start against a good Rutgers defensive effort, the Tar Heels eventually adjusted and found ways to get the ball into the basket, especially when it mattered most.
I'm not someone who thinks that writers or fans need to malign the athletic ability or personalities of players on recent teams, specifically last year's club, in order to enjoy and appreciate the abilities and qualities of this year's group. That said, Carolina has in the person of McCants a unique commodity that has been lacking for a long, long time: namely, a charismatic leadership presence on the court.
McCants' aggressiveness and enthusiasm proved every bit as infectious as advertised in the opening week: This looks like the rare player who can make dramatic plays to fire up his teammates and compel his teammates to play that much harder, with that much more confidence.
The opening few minutes against Penn State were, clearly, the stuff out of which legends are woven. In the much tougher contest against Rutgers, McCants hit two timely threes in the first half, then came up with two excellent drives to the basket for layups in the final five minutes, as well as the game-clinching free throws. Whether McCants can consistently fill this role as the guy who makes things happen out of the gate or when the going gets tough, even on nights when his shot isn't falling or it isn't as easy to get to the rim, remains to be seen. But there's no reason to doubt that McCants will be able to adjust to whatever the college game throws at him this year without losing his basic sense of confidence.
There are a couple of important benefits to having that kind of charismatic leader on board. For one, that kind of player helps fans identify with the team, which is good in itself and also good for maximizing home court advantage. Second, and more importantly, the presence of that kind of player makes the coaching staff's task quite a bit easier: Peers often learn best from one another, and basketball teams generally function best and most consistently when the primary source of motivation comes from within, not a coach's pep talk or psychological ploy. To be sure, from time to time Matt Doherty will still surely see need to step in and re-focus everyone, but stronger internal leadership should make such occasions less frequent (and more effective when they are necessary).
Dean Smith always liked to say that the biggest jump in player improvement comes between the freshman and sophomore years. Last year's sophomore guards, for whatever reason, did not really exhibit an enormous amount of off-season improvement (although Adam Boone did progress quite a bit in the second half of the year). A major question for this year's team had to be and remains this progress of this year's sophomore guards, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott, who in truth did not have freshman seasons a whole lot more impressive on a per minute basis than what Boone and Brian Morrison were able to do as rookies in 2001.
Early returns indicate that Manuel and Scott have both improved--by subtle but important increments in the case of Scott, by leaps and bounds in the case of Manuel.
There's no need to cast analysis of these players' development in terms of a ridiculous early season debate about who should be the starting 2 guard. (Is there anything wrong with the notion that against some opponents Manuel will and should get the call, whereas against others, especially opponents who like zone defense or in situations where a second primary ballhandler is required, Scott will be called on for extended minutes?)
Carolina needs both players to elevate their games significantly above last year, period. And the good news is that Manuel in particular has done just that, showing a remarkably improved sense of confidence, a somewhat better (if still not exactly artistic) handle, and perhaps most astonishingly of all, good foul shooting, both in form (relatively speaking) and result. Add that to Manuel's long arms, ability to help on the glass as a 2 guard, and unquestioned capacity for hustle, and you've got a pretty useful player that coaches and fans alike should feel very comfortable with out on the court. Against Rutgers, despite some early turnovers, Manuel didn't go into a shell but instead kept making some good things happen, including the assist to Williams on the go-ahead basket, and played a vital role defensively and getting out on the break.
This is not to say future backsliding is not possible every now and then, or that there is not plenty of room for improvement, especially in the decision-making with the ball department. But as with the team as a whole, Jackie Manuel's starting point this year is as advanced as the fondest Carolina fan could have wished.
Defensive pressure on the ball
Perhaps the most impressive part of Carolina's start took place on the defensive end, starting with the pressure Raymond Felton puts on the ball at the top. As has often been the case with great Carolina comebacks, Rutgers' own ineptness in terms of shot selection and ignoring Herve Lamizana played a huge role in allowing the Heels to turn things around. But that bona fide meltdown also owed much to the turnovers Carolina forced in the final five minutes, including a Sean May block, a Felton steal, two more turnovers forced by Felton, a McCants steal, and a loose ball won by Felton to set up a McCants layup. All of that starts with the ability to pressure the basketball effectively, and to spring a trap every now and then or apply pressure beyond halfcourt without thinking one is betting the farm.
To be sure, Rutgers showed Wednesday night that Carolina will likely struggle from time to time against teams with skilled inside scorers, or superb perimeter shooters. But the Heels also showed that they can force a turnover when they need to--a statement that could not be honestly made about a Carolina team in quite a long time.
It should go without saying that this has been one of the most encouraging, and important weeks in Chapel Hill in a long time--and the ride is only starting. One of the fun things about a nobody-knows-what's-going-to-happen season like this is that each and every game is a big one--and make no mistake, the ODU game is a vitally important one: Important for the mindset this team takes to New York next week, and likely important at the end of the season when postseason bids are being handed out.
The good news is, from these first two games, Carolina's young players already have a great model of how to start a game (Penn State), and now a great model of how to finish one (Rutgers). In laying the foundation for a successful season, those are two great building blocks to already have in place by the third week of November.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many. Thad welcomes your emails at email@example.com