Monday, March 28, 2011

Great season

Well, it was a frustrating loss for the Heels to Kentucky, a team I hate almost as much as dook, but this season can be considered nothing but a success.  Even in yesterday's game, the Heels showed fight until the very end, which is more than I can say for another team from the Triangle that played in the tournament.  The simple matter is that Kentucky was hot from the outside all day yesterday, the Heels were cold, and yet they still had a chance to take the lead a couple of times in the final two minutes.  There's no shame in that.  That's just facing a team that was better that day.

Looking back, what an amazing turnaround for the Heels this year.  Making the Elite 8 and being a couple of plays away from the Final Four was beyond all imagination in December and early January.  But, this team kept fighting and they made that a reality.  I'm so, so proud of this team and their fight.

The future is bright no matter who leaves for the NBA and who returns, but it would be much brighter with everyone returning.  It'll be interesting to see what happens.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Down goes dook...

Thank you 'Zona!  It was beautiful watching dook choke away a lead and get demolished tonight on the way to their fifth Sweet 16 loss as a #1 seed.  Derrick Williams kept his team afloat with 25 first half points, and the cavalry came in the second half to put dook away.

It really seemed like dook got punched in the mouth and didn't know how to respond.  Kyrie Irving made some plays to keep them in it, but Nolan Smith looked completely rattled.  Seth Curry got banged up, Kyle Singler got in foul trouble, and the rest of the team could do nothing to help out.  Ryan Kelly and the Plumlees brought their F game.

It's not often that you see dook give up like they did tonight.  To Coach K's credit, he usually has his team ready to play in big game situations, but having success against them is all about taking and withstanding their initial punches.  K can motivate his guys to run through a wall for him, so they'll usually come out fired up - but it's hard for a team to sustain that kind of intensity for 40 minutes.  Usually, all they have to do is come out and punch the other team in the mouth, and they've set the tone for the game.  The opponent will back down and run away like a scared animal.

Arizona didn't do that.  Outside of Williams, they struggled in the first half, but they obviously knew how lucky they were to be down only 6 at the half.  They knew dook couldn't come out and sustain that same intensity for another 20 minutes.  dook thought they had taken Arizona's best shot, and they thought a fast start to the second half would put 'Zona away.  On the other hand, the Wildcats knew if they fought back, dook wouldn't know how to handle it.  Arizona wisely kept attacking even after grabbing the lead and building on it, and dook didn't know what to do.  They got cold from the outside, and Arizona was manhandling them inside.  Even Coach K was stumped, as he showed when he inserted Tyler Thornton into the lineup.  He was grasping at straws at that point, and that was the moment I knew this game was over.

It's definitely sweet to see dook go down like this.  They were the darling coming into the season, heralded by all as a certain Final Four team and likely repeat champion.  The Kyrie Irving injury changed things, but I was definitely glad to see him heal up and make it back in the lineup.  I wanted it for the kid because I didn't want him to not get the chance to play in the NCAA tourney.  As much hatred as I have for dook, I couldn't wish that on a player.  The other reason I was glad to see him play is that it takes away the excuse that dook didn't have Kyrie.  As the year progressed after his injury, Kyrie's legend grew greater and greater among the dook fanbase and the media.  If he hadn't played in the tourney and dook had lost, that would have been a built-in excuse for dook.  As it was, he played - and played pretty well.  So, that excuse goes out the window.

I do think his return created some chemistry problems, despite what anyone might say.  That doesn't necessarily mean any players were disgruntled or didn't want Kyrie to return.  I believe they all wanted him back.  It just means that they didn't know what their roles were now that he was back.  Nolan Smith looked like a completely different player with Irving playing, for instance.  He didn't know when to defer and when to take over, and what made dook a great team at times this year was when Smith took over games. 

Still, it seemed like they might be able to get past that and perhaps get back to being a dominant team.  A part of me feared that once dook got past Michigan last week, they were also past any potential chemistry issues related to Kyrie's return.  Not so, says Arizona.

Going forward, it will be strange seeing dook next year without Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.  Despite what you think about them, they were definitely the heart and soul of this dook team.  If Irving returns, I think they still have a chance to be really good.  If he goes pro, as I suspect he might, then it will be a completely different feel to next year's dookies.  I'm sure they'll still be a great team, but they won't have the experience that this year's squad had.  I do know enough about Austin Rivers to know that he will be easy to pull against....

For now, here's to celebrating the end to dook's 2011 season!

Monday, March 14, 2011

ACC championship thoughts... and the NCAA brackets

Well, I was all set to come on here and give congratulations to dook for yesterday's rout.  And, I will give them some credit - they came out the aggressor, and they played with much more effort at the start.  Coach K has made the ACC tournament a priority from the start of his coaching career, and it continues to be.  Roy stubbornly keeps calling it a "cocktail party" and continues to treat it that way.  Each coach's respective teams seemed to follow their coach's lead this past weekend, as has been the case recently.  So, for that, kudos to Coach K and dook for their effort.

What I can't applaud, after taking some time to let the game sink in a little (and checking out some replay), is the officiating.  Now, I'm not going to say that the refs cost UNC the game.  There's no way to tell something like that.  You never really know how the final score would have been affected when poor officiating changes the outcome of the game.  Sometimes it doesn't really affect the outcome, and sometimes it does, to varying degrees.  But, there's a comeback argument about officiating that I often hear and disagree with.  It usually goes something like this:  "Well, change a few of the calls.  Your team lost by 17 points, so those couple of calls don't really change anything in the grand scheme of things."

I think that's flawed logic, and here's why:  The way the game is called sets the tone for what will be allowed defensively and offensively for both teams.  That's especially true when the officials establish early on that one team is going to be able to get away with things that the other team won't be able to do.  That kind of officiating doesn't just affect one or two plays - it affects the way a team is allowed to play the entire game.

Yesterday, dook was allowed to play "aggressive" defense.  What I mean by that is constant hand-checking, pushing, reaching in, grabbing, arm-barring, and slapping of the defender.  Their strategy was to do this as much as possible, hoping that the officials would only call some of it.  I think they were probably surprised by how much they were still able to get away with.

Here's an example of one play that sums of dook's "defense" on the day, starting at the 0:31 mark.  Nolan Smith played this type of defense against Kendall Marshall all game long, which is the reason why the stellar freshman that dominated two previous games against them was shut down this time.

Also, one or two big plays called the wrong way can have a huge impact on the momentum in a game.  Even thought it's just one call, the momentum shift can affect a point swing of more than just the two or so points from that one play.  Also, if a player gets in foul trouble faster because of that play, the effect can be even greater.  A great example of this yesterday was the Dexter Strickland "charge" early in the game when he dunked over Kyle Singler.  There are many reasons why this wasn't a charge:

1) If a player can get dunked on while trying to draw a charge, he's too far under the basket.  This should be the only argument necessary here.
2) Singler had his back turned to the play and then turned around at the last second as Strickland was rising for the dunk.
3) Strickland tried to avoid Singler by shifting to his left while jumping, and Singler accounted for this by leaning to his left.
4) If there was any contact at all, it was on Singler's shoulder as Strickland was trying to go around him and Singler was sliding under him.  As the overhead replay showed, Singler started falling backward before the (minimal, if any) contact came.

That one play changed the momentum of the game in more than one way.  That dunk would have cut the lead to 13-8 and given a jolt of life to the UNC team.  Instead, it demoralized them even more.  It put Strickland in foul trouble, which he stayed in the rest of the game.  It completely changed the momentum of the game from that point forward.

I can argue the calls further, but the point is that dook had an unfair advantage this game.  Again, I won't say that it cost UNC the game.  I just wish we had been able to see a fairly officiated game, because I think that would have been a dandy.

Moving forward, my hope is that this was a wake-up call for UNC's players.  They heard everyone talk about how great they were for a week, and now they'll hear a lot of criticisms and expectations for them to lose early in the NCAA tourney.  Those criticisms could become great motivation for this team if they use it as fuel going into the tourney.

My feeling about the tourney draw is that it wasn't great, but it's not terrible either.  The first round is what it is.  If UNC loses that game, then that probably says more about them than Long Island.  Both Washington and Georgia could be tough in the second round.  Neither team really ever got blown out in games, and most of their losses were extremely close.  I would expect a close game if UNC gets to that point.  If they're lucky enough to get beyond that, then Syracuse is a potential opponent.  Everyone talks about their vaunted zone like it would be the death of UNC, but they were able to beat plenty of teams that zoned them this year.  Also, there were teams that were able to score on Cuse's zone.  I'm sure it would be a tough challenge if that game came to pass, but I think UNC could make it a good game.  And, I won't even mention Ohio State.  If UNC somehow makes it that far, I think everything is gravy at that point no matter who they play.  Every game from that point on would be extremely tough.

As for dook, they got a relatively favorable draw with San Diego St. as their #2, but a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Texas or Arizona could trip them up.  Also, UConn could take them down if those two meet up (if UConn makes it that far).  I wouldn't be surprised to see dook lose as early as the Sweet 16 or make the Final Four.  But, I don't think a championship is in the cards for the dookies unless they get a healthy Kyrie Irving back.  The refs won't let them get away with their normal tactics in the big tourney.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Round 3

Tomorrow will be the final and deciding game between the Heels and dookies, barring a meeting in the NCAA tourney.  I'm a little surprised to see the Heels here, to tell the truth.  I would have said that before seeing them the last two days, but I'd certainly say that now.  They didn't really deserve to win either of these games, but they did.  There's not much more to say about that.

dook will come out a lot harder tomorrow than they did in either Chapel Hill or Durham.  They love playing in the ACC tournament - and especially in Greensboro.  If the Heels come out like they have the past two games, then they have no shot.

I have faith that they'll put those games behind them and play like champions.  After all, it's dook they're facing this time....

GO HEELS!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Redemption

Last night, the Heels redeemed themselves with an 81-67 victory over the Devils.  It wasn't just redemption for the loss earlier this year in Cameron.  It was for last year's 32-point loss on dook's Senior Night.  It was for all of last season, when the Heels lost 17 games and went 5-11 in the ACC.

This season looked bleak when the Heels lost two early games in Puerto Rico... even bleaker when they got blown out at Illinois... and basically over when they got waxed by one of the ACC's worst teams, Georgia Tech.  The Wear twins transferred before the season, leaving the team with such little post depth that Justin Watts had to play the 4.  Will Graves got caught smoking pot (again) and was dismissed from the team, taking away the only legitimate three-point threat from an already poor outside shooting team.  Then, Larry Drew transferred mid-season, leaving the Heels with one true point guard.

Somehow, this team fought through all of that to become ACC regular season champs.  I still don't know quite how it happened, but I do know I'm proud of this team.

I could go on and on about the victory, but if you care enough to read this, you know what happened.  Unlike last time these two teams met, this time the better team won.  Enough said.

Going forward, my only concern is that the Heels don't lose focus.  Beating dook is special, but it shouldn't define a season.  This team still has great things to accomplish if it sets its mind to do so.   I think back to the 2006 team that overachieved and beat dook the last game of the regular season on Redick's Senior Night.  After that win, those Heels couldn't seem to gain the same intensity through any of the postseason.  That's the double-edged sword of such an intense rivalry.  When you put so much of yourself into that game, it's hard to keep it up when you follow it up by playing someone other than dook.  My hope is that these Heels don't make the same mistake.

Last night sure was fun, though... wasn't it?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Round 2 tonight

Tonight, the Heels and Devils face off for the ACC regular season crown.  For the Heels, this game is a chance at redemption.  They played well a month ago in Cameron, but their inexperience did them in.  Some other factors contributed, but I won't go into that again.

Hopefully, playing at home in a friendly environment will be the difference this time around.  These games always start off intense, but the middle 20 minutes of the game will be key.  Whatever the score is at halftime, the Heels have to come out and play well to start the second half.  If they can do that, I think they've got a good chance.  I guess we'll see....

GO HEELS!