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ACC Preview # 3 - UNC

NC State | Wake
Forest

In many respects, one could argue that the most interesting ACC team this
season will be Carolina.  This could be their worst year since Dean Smith
took over, and that year, after the gambling scandal devastated UNC and N.C.
State basketball and ruined the Dixie Classic (thanks a lot fellows), UNC won 7
games.

It won't be that bad, Heels fans, relax. All is relative. Bad at UNC is a
godsend at Clemson.  

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Still, the problem
we saw coming several years ago has come up, and it's happened to two coaches
consecutively: they're not Dean Smith.

That reality is sinking in, and while Matt Doherty may turn out to be a
crackerjack coach, he hasn't enough experience yet for most to form a reliable
judgment. Two seasons at two schools is not much of a track record.

To make things more difficult, he lost most of his best players from last
year's team - Joseph Forte, Brendan Haywood,  Julius Peppers, Ronald Curry,
the last two presumably anyway, and Max Owens.

And to make things even more interesting,  while UNC has a remarkable tradition of big men, 
there are a couple of problems: a) they haven't had that many lately, b) Doherty
has, again, no record in this department at all, as one recruit's mother
supposedly pointed out to him, and c) college basketball seems
to be in the post-center era, as most of the high school guys who come out are
big men.

In many respects, it's probably good that Doherty is at the helm now instead
of Smith or Bill Guthridge, who trained all those big men.  He's not bound
by the system in the same way, and in fact seems to be changing it to suit the
current state of the game.

Nonetheless, this year is a transitional year, and after a nice start last
season, a great start actually, his inexperience came through and he
got a deer-in-the-headlight look several times, not least of all in the ACC
Tournament Finals, when he was totally snowed by Krzyzewski, who said all week
he wasn't going to try to press as  he did in Chapel Hill just a week
before.  But a timeout came, Duke pressed after the TO, and UNC
folded.  Doherty looked like a kid who just saw a bully take his bike.

Now, before you think we're bashing Doherty, we're not. It's honestly what we
saw, and he is still a young coach.  But with that said, where to from
here?

As we also said sometime ago,  and as we've seen other places now too, he is learning from what Duke
and now others  have done and is adapting the idea of athletes over
positions to the UNC program, which is certainly not the
way he was taught. You can look at that two ways: 1) he's disloyal and doesn't
trust the system, or 2) he's willing to try new things. The latter is much more
desirable in coaches.

Normally, or we should say in the old days, UNC had two guys over 6-10 who
were excellent players, a 6-11 stiff who spent three years learning, and they
worked teams over inside and trapped and, well you probably remember the rest.

Not anymore. 

A big part of  UNC's team is Bill Guthridge-oriented, including Kris
Lang, Neil Fingleton,  Brian Bersticker,  and Jason Capel.  Adam
Boone and Jonathan Holmes are recognizable as the kind of guards Dean Smith used
to run in on the Blue Team for 3 years, and then when they were seniors, they
turned into Keusters and Scott Cherrys.

But UNC hasn't run pressure defense for several years; in fact, no on the
team currently ever experienced it at a high level.  When Guthridge tried
it, he backed off quickly. The athleticism simply wasn't there.

But there is a small core of players who are athletic enough to do most
anything a coach would ask.  There aren't enough yet to go flat out, but
there is an emerging group.  The players who fit Doherty's faster, more athletic model, are Melvin
Scott, Brian Morrison, Jackie Manuel, and Jawad Williams.  With Raymond
Felton and Rashad McCants on the way, the trend continues, and guys like Lang and
Fingleton fit in less and less well.

There is, in other words, a temporary schism, or potential schism anyway,
between what Guthridge had going on, which, we might add, was very successful
though not as athletic as some might have liked, and what Doherty is after.

To put it in a nutshell: if you have Morrison, Scott, Williams, and Manuel on
the court, how do you get Lang or Fingleton  to keep up?  For that
matter, though Jason Capel is a smart and tough player, how does he keep up
athletically? 

Next year, when UNC adds Felton and McCants, they'll have a very solid group
of athletes to rely on, and Lang and Capel will be gone. But this year, where do
you draw the line?

If we're Doherty - and we thank God every day that we're not - we would be
very tempted to just go with the athletes.  If Morrison is capable of
playing under control, we start him and probably Scott.  We go with Manuel
and Williams up front, and bring Capel and Boone off the bench.  Now here's
the wild card. Brian Bersticker has never shown that he can play at this level,
but he is a radically better athlete than either Lang or Fingleton.  Last
time we saw him, he was lunging at a center's faked jumper at the foul
line.  Nonetheless, he is tall and highly mobile, and he can keep up with
the other four players.  If he can play with a minimum of discipline and
heart, suddenly, UNC is one of the faster teams around.

Needless to say, it won't happen.  Lang is a reliable if unimaginative
inside player, and Capel would not take well to a sixth man role at this point
in his career.  But it would put UNC's best athletes on the floor, give
them an extremely solid bench, and in fact almost a blue team.  But while
it would be imaginative and bold and would build for the future, it would also
violate a serious UNC taboo, which is sitting seniors, and more importantly, it
would wreck chemistry.  But you still have to deal with the fact that
there's a split on this team between past and future. Our vote would be for the
future, but it would never go over in Chapel Hill.

The schedule is pretty different, too. UNC only has four regular season games before their first ACC game. Wow! 

The first game is against Hampton, fresh off their big NCAA upset of Iowa
State.  Davidson is no patsy, though UNC should win, and then it's Indiana
and Georgia Tech, followed by Kentucky. Binghamton is a breather.

Next up is The Tournament of Champions, with the College of Charleston and
Lefty Driesell's Georgia State. That's not necessarily easy, and could be
extremely tough if the team lacks confidence.  Charleston knows they can
beat UNC, and Lefty will be more than ready.

Like most of you, we have no idea what to expect out of this team. But we
have a sneaking suspicion that the key early game could be Indiana, where confidence
could be made or delayed.  Georgia Tech is next up, and while they are
young, they are well coached and will probably play reasonably well.  And
then Kentucky looms. And then it's not long until the real season starts.

If things are relatively even, despite the very different nature of the
upperclassmen and lower, things might stay senior-oriented.  If they do
not, the younger players will likely be pushed forward.  

Regardless of what happens, short of a strong and highly successful season
which brings everyone, fans and players together, Matt Doherty is going to have
his diplomatic skills tested.  He has received praise for
various qualities, most notably aggression, but we have never heard anyone
compliment his diplomatic skills.  That's not to say he doesn't have them,
just that they have never been the focus when people talk about his
skills.  There's an excellent chance they will be this year.