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ACC Preview #2 - UNC

Last year, we said this about UNC's season: "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."

Ok, so they won 8 games, so technically, we were right. But
there's no way around it: the Heels were dreadful last year. One of the things
Matt Doherty has done consistently, and it could prove to be either genius or
idiocy, is to cut ties to the Dean Smith era. The coaching staff is
totally changed, the office personnel is largely changed, and there's no
question it's his show now.

So far, it's a mixed bag. He won national coach of the year in his
rookie season, but ended the season on a skid which hasn't yet
stopped. His recruiting has consistently improved and was sensational this
past year. Yet the entire rising junior class is gone, all transferred, and the
sophomores almost left as well. Now he enters into a crucial season with only
Jon Holmes and Will Johnson as seniors. Holmes has also been the subject
of transfer rumors. Add in the Jason Parker fiasco, rumors about why
Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry chose not to play this past season, the
truly horrible team of last year, and the fact that he has to rely so utterly on
three sophomores and three or more freshmen, and things are not really looking
so good in Chapel Hill.

The good news is the recruits. Doherty picked up three guys who will
almost surely start - Raymond Felton, a superb point guard talent, perhaps UNC's
best at that position since Derrick Phelps, and possibly Phil Ford, Rashad
McCants, a 6-3 guard with arms of a much taller man, and 6-9 Sean May, son of
Indiana legend Scott, who will likely be chained to the post for a year or
two. He also got two guys generally regarded as projects: 6-8 Byron
Sanders, a guy who is said to have some real talent, and 6-11 Damion Grant, who
is apparently a definite project. Durham's David Noel, who is 6-5, is an
excellent athlete who originally planned to play football at UNC. He will walk
on as a freshman.

Add in sophs Jackie Manuel, who has bulked up, Melvin Scott, who can now back
up either guard position, and Jawad Williams, who started to really come on at
the end of the season, and it's a good nucleus.

No matter how you cut it, though, it's a young team, and after the startling
comments made by players after last season about Matt Doherty, one has to wonder
how he will deal with a team which could potentially have a fragile psyche.

We were startled by the lack of kind words from Dick Vitale recently, who is
always bucking up coaches and calling for schools to give them a chance.
About Doherty his comments were distinctly neutral: "The bottom line is that this is an important year for Doherty. Progress must be made. He has three blue-chip recruits coming in who will be vital factors in contributing to the success of the program: Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashard McCants. There's a question about whether Felton will stay in school for a long time. Will he be one year and done? The Tar Heels have to get back to the Carolina way of life, which means going to the NCAAs at the least. It could happen, since the ACC is wide open. When you look at the ACC this season, there isn't a dominant heavyweight team there. So there's potential for success for the Tar Heels."

In Vitale-speak, that's rough stuff.

Yet it's entirely possible that rather than going down as the guy who turned
his back on the Dean Smith system (that's a popular conception around here) and
ran UNC into the ground, Doherty could instead be hailed as a guy who was strong
enough to do it his way. This is a familiar narrative to an extent,
because Mike Krzyzewski ran a similar gauntlet when he arrived at Duke.
There was no Smith to follow, though Bill Foster had done a great job for about
a half a decade, and the pressure on Krzyzewski was amazing. People
weren't happy with recruiting, weren't happy with the defense, and sure as hell
weren't happy with the record. After a successful first season, K
had back-to-back disasters before getting things going.

If we're Matt Doherty - and every time we utter that phrase, we follow it
with "and thank God we're not" - we're really happy to have retained
the sophomore class, thrilled with Felton and May, but we're pinning our hopes
on McCants, and here's why: we think McCants is the guy on this team, freshman
or not, who can handle Doherty's intensity. Last year, even Jawad Williams' mom
said "I've never seen a group of guys so unhappy. I think they've all thought about leaving at some point."
From everything we've heard, Rashad McCants is a guy who can soak it up and come
back for more. That was clearly not true for some of the guys on last
year's team, and most freshmen have enormous adjustments to make.

If you have a temperament like Doherty supposedly has, having a lightning rod
is really useful. You can hammer a guy like that, and get to the rest of
the team through him. We don't know if Doherty is skilled enough
psychologically to do that, just as we don't know that he's not, but we know
that's what we'd try.

The backcourt rotation is suddenly very athletic and pretty deep: Felton is
an NBA player just waiting to pick his draft, McCants is a super defender and
leader, and they will both likely start. Manuel and Scott can now
concentrate on improving, and can play to their strengths while they develop
their games. Noel could see time as a defensive presence as well.

Up front, Sean May will have to play center, and he could be a bit of a
misfit on this team. He's a skilled player, but UNC is building a real running
team, and we're not sure yet how well he will fit into that. We'll know
pretty quickly, of course. He has a lot of skills, particularly on
offense. We haven't seen him enough to know if speed is one of them.

Jawad Williams will start at one forward, and the other position is pretty
open. It could conceivably be Byron Sanders, if he gets serious fast
enough, or Jackie Manuel. It could even be McCants, who could play
small forward. It'll be a small team, but Doherty wisely has realized that
most high level big men are going directly to the NBA at this point, and has
adjusted accordingly.

So UNC's talent is nearly replenished, which is good for them, and good for
the ACC. But the big question now is the same one that came up at the end
of Doherty's first season and has yet to be conclusively answered. He's a
driven man, and a persuasive recruiter. The question about Doherty is can
he temper his intensity enough to relate to his players? Can he get his players
excited and on the same page? Can he lead, can he teach? As Vitale suggests, if
he can't, he won't last long.