Of course, basketball has changed dramatically in the 52 years since Frank McGuire’s team went an NCAA-best 32-0 that season and secured Tobacco Road as a relevant address for college hoops.
So it certainly seemed a bit odd to see the new-look Tar Heels donning the ’57 team’s uniform look – red waist line and all – in an 88-72 season-opening victory over Florida International at the Smith Center. And it also seemed a bit unusual to see a constantly changing lineup on the floor.
It was just seven months ago when a veteran group of NBA talent in baby blue gobbled up most of the minutes in leading the Tar Heels to the program’s fifth NCAA title. Fans could look onto the court from the rafters or at their TVs and almost immediately pick out the players. There was comfort in that familiarity.
Monday’s revolving door, however, was a necessity because most of those players are gone.
“It seemed a bit weird to not have those guys here,” said sophomore point guard Larry Drew, who backed up current Denver Nugget Ty Lawson a year ago. “But I am getting used to it some. It will take time for everyone, but we will come together.”
Carolina coach Roy Williams doesn’t know how the rotation will look when the Heels take form. He may have some ideas, but it must be played out on the courts.
Most of his 12 scholarship players came to school with tremendous accolades, and with just three of them not freshmen or sophomores, it stands to reason that it may not be until 2010 before the Hall of Fame coach settles on a rotation.
One certainty is the Tar Heels are tall and long and they will remain that way all season. In fact, they are so big that Florida International coach Isiah Thomas - an NBA legend if a reminder is needed – compared the Heels to a team from the play-for-pay league he’s more familiar with.
“It definitely felt like we were playing an NBA team tonight,” said Thomas, who later opined, “The bigs that they have, when they were in the game they were quite skilled.”
His last comment is why etching in stone the rotation will take time.
Unlike the ’57 team that had just one major contributor over 6-foot-6, the current Heels have six players 6-9 or taller, and each is talented enough to demand playing time.
“We have some really capable big guys,” fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard said. “They are all talented and will all be really good players. I think all of them will help us this year.”
Williams played 12 guys in 2007 and Carolina won 31 games and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Like this group, that unit was comprised largely of underclassmen, but it had four returning starters that included first-team All-America Tyler Hansbrough.
With respect to supremely talented Ed Davis and senior Deon Thompson, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting that kind of attention this winter. So Williams and his staff will more resemble bakers kneading dough than three seasons ago.
Monday’s performance was Exhibit A in that reality.
Carolina committed 26 turnovers while registering just 23 assists. Its offense had a nice approach, but there was a herky jerkyness to it. Ten Heels played double figure minutes Monday and two more were on the floor for eight and nine minutes.
“I think we’re together as a team,” Thompson said, “but we’re definitely not on the same page, yet.”
Drew will take time learning to run the show for 30 minutes a night. He had his moments (six assists, two turnovers) but getting used to the constant change of personnel on the floor may affect him as much as any other Heel.
Freshmen bigs Travis and David Wear gave the impression they are just playing time away from becoming solid ACC performers. Rookie guard Dexter Strickland is a quick learner and showed some flashes that in time should become stretches.
Seven-foot sophomore Tyler Zeller played in the final 13 games of last season, but he was simply providing a role. Now he must define his game, and he was certainly offensive minded (12 points on 4-of-7 shooting) against the Golden Panthers. His hands aren’t great right now, but he has the kind of game that could take off by February.
Thompson, Davis and Ginyard are the certainties and 6-6 junior Will Graves will get every opportunity to provide an impact, especially with his perimeter touch. John Henson - a 6-10 freshman with a Tayshaun Prince build but a raw game - should also nail down a spot in the rotation.
But the disbursement of minutes and demands of individuals is simply a guessing game at this point. We can say what we think will happen, but nobody really knows, and that’s why watching this team come together should be fascinating.