The winter of discontent has finally found the road to Chapel Hill. For the first time since cars had tail fins, the Heels appear to be heading towards a losing record and the popular game in Orange County right now is to find the right person to blame. That's pretty understandable for a fan base with a large percentage of people that have never seen the Heels near the bottom of the ACC. (It feels strange to even type those last few words. Well, it feels good too, but mostly it feels strange.) We're not talking about a fan based that is accustomed to winning; we're talking about a fan base that has never known anything but winning. Surely someone has to be responsible for all of this! Still, if there's one thing that could save Matt Doherty and Bill Guthridge from car pooling it to Effigy, NC, it would be a win over a #1 ranked Duke team.
There's a scene in the otherwise forgettable movie "That Thing You Do" when a member of a pop band suddenly exposed to wild popularity in the early sixties asks the question, "How did we ever get here?" That's the same question you can hear up and down Franklin Street. The most popular individual to blame for all of this seems to be Bill Guthridge who failed to bring in enough talent for the Heels to carry on their winning tradition. But was it really fair to believe that the 85-year old Guthridge would be viewed by anybody as anything more than a middle inning reliever? Was it fair to ask a man to recruit when the prevailing sentiment out there is that you won't be the head coach for long? Was it fair to make this guy hit the recruiting trail and miss all those "Matlock" episodes?
The other prime suspect for the Heels' woes seems to be current head coach Matt Doherty. Critics question every move out of Doherty and more than once it's been wondered aloud just how well this team would be doing with Dean Smith at the helm. Did Doherty's hard driving manner run Joseph Forte out of town? Did he burn the team out and lead them to their late season swoon last year? Doherty's supporters point to the team's 18-game winning streak and victory over Duke in Cameron last year as evidence of his ability. They'll also bring up his Coach of the Year award where the only plausible explanation could be that the voting took place on February 2.
But the real truth is that there is no single reason for the current state of the Heels. What the Heels have is a young team with a young head coach. There's no doubt that Doherty could do more if he had better or more experienced talent on his team. This year, the two most experienced members of team are both solid complimentary players and neither is particularly adept at creating their own offense. That's not necessarily a bad thing - there are hundreds of guys out there that are great collegiate players but have to rely on their teammates to set them up. But in the Heels' case, the problem is compounded by the inexperience of the players handling the basketball. There's also no doubt the team could do better with a more experienced head coach at the helm. Doherty has had some success in each of his two years, but people are measuring him against the standard of Carolina, not the standard of a young head coach.
The other real truth is that come Thursday night, none of that matters.
The strength of the Tar Heel team this year is undoubtedly in their frontcourt where seniors Kris Lang and Jason Capel are the top two scorers on the squad. After starting at the power forward spot for most of his first three seasons, the 6-11 Lang has been moved to the pivot. Despite his experience, Lang is prone to making really poor decisions, like say for example this one. Someone was apparently able to convince him that sporting the leprechaun beard and striking a bad beefcake pose for a public photo was actually a good idea. That moment of poor
judgment aside, it has been a pretty good season for Lang. Well, excluding that moment and all
those losses that is.
Lang still has the robotic jump hook that he will take with either hand. If you let him get close to the basket he makes that shot consistently. If you push him off the blocks and make him take it from more than 5 feet his shooting percentage drops like a scalper's price on tickets to the Dean Dome. Like each of his earlier years, Lang has once again been plagued with injuries. This year he's suffered a strained knee ligament, forcing him to miss two games. Then, just when it appeared Lang was starting to get back on track, he was hit with what UNC referred to as a "painful toenail problem." His 20-minute stretch against Clemson under those conditions was a true profile in courage.
Lang has shown considerable improvement over last year, increasing his range and his variety of shots. Part of that has to do with the fact that the middle is a little more open for him this year as Doherty has favored a smaller frontcourt with a more open offensive attack. Lang's shown good touch out to around 13 feet and has added a nice up-and-under move to complement his jump hook. He's a sound rebounder, although not spectacular for his size and position.
Capel spends a lot of time at the power forward spot although he can also play the small forward as he did for most of last year. Like Lang, Capel has been spending a little too much time in street clothes this year. Earlier this month, Capel suffered a concussion in practice and missed the next three games - all North Carolina losses. The official story was that he was diving for a loose ball, but it could easily have stemmed from those post three-point basket, double fist to the top of the head moves Capel seems so fond of.
Capel has caught some heat this year from fans for a perceived failure to play to their level of. In that regard, he's had a similar fate to his brother Jeff and his senior season at Duke. Both players struggled early in their senior campaigns - Jason Capel started this year just 5-35 on three point attempts - and both were able to come back and be key leaders on their team. Despite his shooting woes, the younger Capel has continued to play hard and is one of the top rebounders in the league at just under 10 points a game. He's still shooting poorly - just 27% on threes including 2 for his last 11 - but he leads the team in several statistical categories.
More importantly, he's been invaluable to Doherty on team filled with young players. In a game earlier this year, one of the Tar Heel underclassman hit a meaningless three-point shot late in a 20-point loss. After the shot, the underclassman held three fingers aloft and nodded his head to the crowd as he ran back on defense. At the next timeout, you could see Capel working with the younger player letting him know that a three-point shot, down by twenty did not call for those kind of antics?.. it called for the chest to the fist move, or maybe even the two fists to the head move. Now that's veteran leadership.
Capel's shooting woes illustrate his biggest difficulty as a player. He's not particularly quick off the dribble, nor does he have great leaping ability down low. He's a great complimentary player that can spot up for a three, but his effectiveness goes down considerably when he has to shoot off a screen or down low in traffic. When he gets the ball inside, he's prone to launch into a series of pump fakes that make him look like a bobble head doll and tell the rest of the world; "I can't jump." In the right position with the right teammates, Capel is an exceptional player. But he doesn't have those players on this team. As a result, he's a very good player doing everything he can to carry the team.
At the other forward spot, the Heels have gone with a variety of starters but it appears that freshman Jawad Williams is the most talented. The 6-9 Williams started slowly but has been playing well in recent games, averaging in double figures for the last 5 contests. He is streaky from the three-point line and can be especially effective from the top of the key if he gets hot. He has an all-around offensive game, although he was much more prolific on the inside in high school where his 205 lb. frame was not such a disadvantage.
Eventually, Williams is going to develop into a very good basketball player. He's too similar to guys like Lamar Odom and Kevin Garnett. His outside game needs a little more polish and he needs to develop his body more, but the skills are all there.
Williams shares the starting spot with Will Johnson, a 6-8 junior walk-on and on paper, there shouldn't be any comparison between the two. But Johnson has started most of the games because he's been a very steady player and takes care of the ball better than Williams. Johnson is a good shooter and has to be respected from beyond the three-point line. But what he does best for the Heels is come up with loose balls and rebounds.
Rounding out the frontcourt reserves for the Heels are two guys better known for their bench sideshow the last few years. Seniors Brian Bersticker and Orlando Melendez have spent the better part of the last 4 years embarrassing UNC fans with their ridiculous antics but now both are trying to make the best of their opportunity. The 6-10 Bersticker seems a step quicker this year, but that's probably because Michael Brooker is no longer clamped onto his leg. Bersticker has a nice soft touch and a good jumper out to 12 feet. Defensively he is a good shot blocker but has poor fundamentals and is often out of position.
You get the feeling that Melendez and Bersticker may have spent most of their time choreographing their next bench routine when Smith, Guthridge, and Doherty were talking defensive fundamentals. Melendez is like Bersticker
a good athlete but not sound fundamentally. He can be sensational and horrible, sometimes on the same possession and is not shy about shooting the ball from anywhere on the court. Melendez missed UNC's last game with tendonitis in his knee and his status is listed as day-to-day. (Which, to quote Rich Eisen - "Aren't we all?")
The Heels backcourt has struggled all year and Doherty has experimented with several different combinations. At one end of the spectrum, he has some good athletes who tend to be turnover prone. At the other end he has some solid guards who have trouble putting the ball in the basket.
At the point guard, Doherty seems to have settled on Adam Boone, a 6-2 sophomore that was once a potential Duke recruit. Boone is coming off a career night at Clemson where he scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He's a very good three-point shooter but needs some time to get set. Boone's biggest drawback is his quickness - or lack thereof. Quicker guards can give him trouble on both ends of the floor. Against NC State he was harassed into 5 turnovers and Duke will look to do the same.
Jackie Manual had established himself as the starter until missing the last two games with a stress fracture in his foot. Manual has been inconsistent on offense but has played solid defense the entire season. At 6-6 and with long arms he's able to challenge shooters. He also has great quickness for a player his size, allowing him to defend opposing guards. Like Melendez, Manual is listed as day-to-day.
If Manual is unable to play, Doherty can use either Melvin Scott or Brian Morrison in his spot. Both Scott and Morrison are talented guys who can put points on the scoreboard in a hurry - for either team. The 6-2 Scott has started several games at the point guard spot for the Heels. But the freshman is more of a combo guard and struggled with turnovers when playing the point. In that regard he'll remind many of former Tar Heel Shammond Williams early in his career.
Scott is a much better scorer than his numbers would indicate. He can put the ball on the floor and penetrate and he can hit the deep shot. The Heels can get much the same out of Morrison, a 6-2 sophomore with considerable potential. At one point, it appeared he was ready to realize that potential. Against Georgia Tech he exploded for 21 points on 6 of 8 shooting from beyond the three-point line. But since the start of the new year, Morrison has shot just 28% on threes and has been very careless with the basketball.
The danger here is that Krzyzewski's team starts to listen to all the people talking about what a blowout this game will be. There are way too many people predicting a stomping of Walter Mondale type proportions. Yet there is still a lot of heart in the Tar Heel team. You can see it by the way that Jason Capel and Kris Lang continue to play hard even late in games where they're losing big. You can also see improvement in the team's performances as of late - regardless of the outcome of the games.
With that in mind, you have to expect the Heels to come out with emotion and intensity. Expect the Heels to try and take advantage of their two biggest strengths - Kris Lang in the pivot and Jason Capel on the glass. Lang has been very, very good whenever he's faced a man defense. He dropped 27 points on Indiana and 18 on Kentucky, two pretty good basketball teams.
Carolina is going to want to get the ball into Lang where he can score or draw fouls on Boozer. That's a huge key to this game as Duke has yet to establish a consistent backup to Boozer. Nick Horvath has played better in recent games, but still looks uncomfortable and unconfident on the offensive end of the floor. Matt Christensen may be able to play well in this type of game as UNC would likely prefer to keep the pace of the game down.
For Duke to be at it's best, they need Carlos Boozer on the floor for 30 minutes. No player has responded better to Duke's loss at FSU than Boozer who has posted 6 straight 20-point games. Against Lang, Boozer's most effective defense will be to use his strength to push Lang away from his comfort zone. But that's the kind of defense that could draw fouls and consequently the Devils will have to rely on perimeter pressure to make it difficult for the UNC guards to feed the post. Duke is going to go after the young Heel guards and try to turn them over like a goat on a rotisserie.
The Devils can also look to Boozer to turn the tables on Lang on the other end of the court if Doherty plays a man defense. Lang lacks great lateral quickness and may have trouble defending Boozer. They've faced off in the pivot before, in the overtime period of Duke's win at the Dean Dome in 2000. After struggling against Brendan Haywood for much of the game, Boozer exploded for 7 points in the 5 minute overtime. Both players are much better now and the pairing may be the best matchup of the game.
Krzyzewski will probably look to use both Dahntay Jones and Mike Dunleavy on Capel. The key for both players will be to keep Capel off the boards where he gets most of his points. Capel is far and away the leading offensive rebounder. If Jones and Dunleavy can keep him from getting easy baskets on putbacks it could be a long night for Capel.
Duke is likely to see some zone from Doherty who will want to limit the amount of possessions in this game. If the Heels can use a zone to make Duke work for shots and shorten the game it increases the Heels chances for a win. Doherty used the same tactic in last year's defeat of Duke at Cameron. This year it's almost a must as the Heels lack the speed to keep up with the Devils, particularly in the backcourt.
If Duke is able to force the Heels out of their zone then there will be matchup problems all over the court for the Heels. At the point guard spot, Chris Duhon has a huge quickness advantage over Boone. The coaching staff and team have been urging Duhon to become more aggressive on offense in recent games and you can see it in his play. In the past, Duhon was reticent in driving the lane and when he did, teams were clearly playing him to pass the ball. Look for him to continue to take the ball to the basket and finish as Krzyzewski refines the team's offense.
At the shooting guard, Jason Williams will obviously have a distinct advantage over his defender. If he can play, Jackie Manual may provide an interesting challenge for Williams. Manual's size and long arms may make it tough for Williams to get a good look from the outside, although he may have some trouble stopping Williams' penetration.
The Heels also have a tough decision in defending Duke's forwards, particularly when Will Johnson is in the game. The recent play of Dahntay Jones, who is in coming off three straight games of 15 points or better, has made Duke a much stronger team. Jones' play in the opening minutes of the second half of the Virginia game gave Duke the working margin they needed. Jones is using his athleticism to get into the lane for midrange jumpers. But even more importantly, he's also getting into the lane and distributing.
Jones' development means opponents now have two potent wing scorers to defend. For a team like North Carolina, with a limited number of athletic wing players, that can be a tall hurdle. Teams are still likely to place their best defender on Dunleavy and make Jones beat them, but the problem for them is that Jones is rising to the challenge.
The bottom line is that this is a winnable game for UNC, but they have to do a lot of things right. They have to get production out of Lang and get Boozer in foul trouble. They have to use a zone to control the pace of the game. And they have to protect the basketball. If the Heels can limit their turnovers and do all those other things they can win - but they may need a poor shooting night from Duke to do it. If Duke comes out shooting hot, they'll scorch that zone and force Doherty to play their game.
The folks at ESPN have just about worn out that tape of the 1995 Duke - UNC tape in an effort to remind people that when these two teams meet, anything can happen. They may not need to bother. They've underestimated the number of people who may be tuning in hoping to watch the Heels suffer. Thirty some straight years of basketball excellence will generate a significant level of contempt with other fans. Right now the Heels are down and they're getting less sympathy than Linda Lay and her tearful tale of bankruptcy.
Either way, it's a win for ESPN. They'll either get a competitive game from a storied program looking to upset a hated rival, or they'll get folks gawking at the carnage. I'm kind of hoping for the carnage.