With the football season complete, planning and recruiting are already heating up for 2003. I'll take a moment to pass out a few MVP awards in spite of a dismal 3-9 season.
Sam Aiken. It would have been nice to see Sam get his thousand yards for the season, but getting a win in his last game and making a crucial fourth down catch to do it, well, in a 3-9 season, it cannot get much better than that. He finished his senior campaign with 68 catches for 990 yards and four touchdowns – certainly deserving of an All-ACC award. I've said here many times that Aiken is simply one of the best receivers to wear the Carolina blue uniform. His graduation is a huge blow for the team but his dedication to making his younger teammates better will help the Heels for years down the road.
Darian Durant. After all the heaping accolades he could handle last year, Durant was subject to more than his share of criticism this season despite being on his way to the most prolific year ever for a UNC quarterback. Granted, he brought much of the grief on himself with his 'I'm gone - no I'm back' saga last spring. But anyone who doubted his dedication to Carolina and his toughness need look no further than his performance against Duke. Ever injure your thumb and try to throw a ball? Now do it with 11 guys trying to knock your head – and hand – off. Durant could have stayed on the sideline and relaxed until the start of spring practice but chose to come back and suit up for a 2-9 team playing for nothing but pride. Is there anyone that still questions his heart and dedication?
Dexter Reid. I can only imagine how many more yards and points the Tar Heel defense would have given up if not for Reid. How many times was he the last man with a chance to make a tackle and made it? His 166 tackles were nearly double that of the second man on the list (Doug Justice – 90) and I'd bet nearly a quarter of those 166 were touchdown savers. Reid won't get the postseason honors to match his preseason hype, but 3-9 does that. The pro ranks know what type of player he is and will be however. Having his senior leadership on the field next year is a must for Carolina to turn this ship around.
There are other players that deserve mention (Zach Hilton, Bobby Blizzard, Kevin Knight in particular) but those three are head and shoulders at the top for this season. Luckily for the Heels, two should be around next year, better than ever.
The Carolina basketball team faces its toughest challenge of the year when Kansas comes calling later tonight in the famed Madison Square Garden. At stake is a trip to the Preseason NIT finals against either Stanford or Florida. Even with a loss to the Jayhawks, the Heels are guaranteed another important game Friday night against the loser of the Cardinal-Gators battle. These two games along with next Tuesday's date at Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten challenge will certainly provide the youthful Carolina team with a true measuring stick for where they are in the plethora of D-1 college basketball teams. Winning even two of the three games will be a daunting challenge though it would be unwise to think anything is impossible with this version of the Tar Heels.
Sitting at 3-0, Carolina has already shown its diverse style, winning each game in a significantly different fashion. A blowout win against Penn State. A thrilling come from behind win over Rutgers and a workmanlike grinder against Old Dominion.
The big four of Rashad McCants, Sean May, Jawad Williams and Raymond Felton are leading the team thus far, statistically and vocally. McCants and May will likely average 17 or 18 points on the season with Jawad not far behind. I'd be surprised if Felton didn't break the record for the highest single season assist average of 8.1 by Ed Cota in 99-00. Through three games, Felton is averaging eight.
Those four are going to be there. Night in and night out, Carolina will get roughly the same output from each of them. Some games more, some games less, but count on consistency.
The key to a successful season lies with the production of Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel. Whether it is hitting a clutch three pointer as Scott did against ODU or playing suffocating defense as Manuel did against Penn State, these two players must step up and fill in the loose pieces the other four do not.
So Carolina begins a stretch of games not usually seen outside of the NCAA Tournament (Kansas, Stanford/Florida, Illinois, Kentucky) before the semester exam break. Can the Heels keep the run going, or better yet, make a statement that Carolina is definitely back in the thick of college basketball? We shall soon see.
Tommy Ashley can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.