clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

ACC Preview # 5 - UNC

N.C. State | Wake
Forest
| Florida
State
| Maryland

A whole lot of people are going to pick UNC as the pre-season
#1, and that's understandable, given the talent on the floor and on the
bench. We just don't buy it, at least not yet.

UNC is still a program in transition, going from a Doherty
Disaster to a Williams recovery. The biggest problem is that Ol' Roy still
has a whole lot of Matt's recruits, and in some cases that's a problem.

Doherty recruited like a teetotaler who won the lottery and
decided to invest in fine wines - and bought by the label.

Yes, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants are extraordinary
talents. Yes, Jawad Williams can play, and Jackie Manuel and Sean May are
among our favorite returning ACC players. But what Doherty didn't
understand, clearly on a personal level, and also on a team level, was
chemistry. You can't just collect talent. It has to mesh.

So far, for different reasons, McCants and Felton haven't
completely meshed with their teammates or the system.

There were plenty of public comments by UNC players about
McCants over his first two years. He was called aloof, moody, hard to
understand, and more. The theme was picked up again this summer when he
was cut from the national team because Kelvin Sampson apparently didn't much
like his demeanor or his interaction with teammates.

This is a hard question to ask, much less answer, and it's a
tough burden to put on anyone, but of everyone who has come since, has anyone at
UNC come closer to Jordanesque ability than Rashad McCants? The problem
is that Jordan's physical gifts, while awesome, aren't exactly unheard of.
How big a difference, purely in physical terms, was there between Jordan and,
say, Harold Minor, Corey Maggette, and Earl Manigault? You might even
argue that Maggette and Manigault are/were more athletic than Jordan. We're not
saying we would, but you can't dismiss it out of hand.

But Jordan's greatest talent was that he couldn't stand
losing, and he'd do whatever his coaches asked him to do to get better and to
win. If you believe, as we do, that Bill Russell was the greatest player
in the history of basketball and the NBA (from his junior year to the end of his
career he played in the final game every season and won all but two of them),
then it's also hard to argue that Jordan was the most complete player,
offensively and defensively, who ever played.

Yet his talent is not wildly beyond that of McCants.
What's completely out of sight is his mentality. At one point, the Bulls had to
tell him he couldn't lift weights with Horace Grant because they were worried he
would seriously injure himself trying to outlift Grant.

To date, what we see of McCants is a guy who is somewhat
isolated from his teammates, which is not to say it's a strained relationship,
though for all we know it might be. And despite his astonishing talent,
he's just as likely to lose a game on defense as win it on offense. Actually, if
you go back and watch UNC's games from last year, you'll see one or the other
happen an awful lot.

In spite of his gifts, he's got some things to work on.
Defense is a significant weakness - he doesn't really seem to like diving on the
floor much - and he probably has to figure out some way to seem less
distant. All things considered, not bad problems to have, because they are
easily fixed, assuming he recognizes that they need work.

Raymond Felton is a tremendous pure talent at point, but like
McCants, his game is in need of refinement.

Felton, who played ball in small-town South Carolina until he
came to UNC, still plays that way sometimes. He's impossible on the break,
but a lot of times he makes bad judgments, too, and we seem to recall that on at
least on occasion, Roy Williams told him to do one thing at a critical juncture,
and he didn't do it.

Now, one of the advantages we have as fans is humility:
if Williams told us to take the ball in the middle and go up against Shelden
Williams and hit the foul shots if we survived the ensuing concussion, well, we
might not do it either.

Just because someone has great talent doesn't necessarily mean
they'll be great players, and we're not saying Felton won't be. We're
saying that he is still a young player, from a place where basketball isn't a
religion the way it is in this state, and he can be forgiven for being
imperfect.

But it's not going to get the ball inside to Sean May.

Over the summer, Rashad McCants had the chance to play with
Wake's Chris Paul at national team tryouts, and was amazed at the difference. "He's a better point guard [than
Felton]. Raymond is more talented. But taking nothing away from Ray, Chris Paul is really talented, too."

Well, yes, but their talents are different. Chris Paul's
talent is in orchestrating his team and playing cut-throat defense.
Felton's talent is more in the open court. We're trying to recall him in
the halfcourt game, and it may be just that he's so fast, such a blur on the run,
that it clouds the memory. But his halfcourt game didn't impress us all
that much.

So while he has a backcourt with enormous ability, Williams
must be frustrated that he hasn't been able to harness it fully just yet.
Still, juniors are better than sophomores, and it's entirely possible, if not
probable, that they all bought into his ideas over the summer.

So accept them as near-great and let's go from
there.

Up front, while Sean May has struggled with foot injuries to
date, he is a very, very impressive player. He is big, strong, and unlike
almost all players today, very, very fundamentally sound, at least
offensively. He has a gorgeous outlet pass, and it's not uncommon to see
him rip down 15 boards in a game. He shoots well, too. What do you
do with a guy like that?

Normally, you double-team him, but if you try that, you run a
risk of letting the passive Jawad Williams get it going, or, probably worse,
letting newcomer Marvin Williams, who is definitely not passive, beat you to
death inside.

Williams is going to be a load, and with May, will pound the
boards inside and also free Jawad Williams, who has been forced to play out of
position, which accounts for some of his passivity. He's not a post
player, and the most you can expect is a warrior's attitude down there, which,
unfortunately for UNC, he lacked.

That could possibly cost him, too. With two solid big
guys presumably starting, Jawad's role is less critical than it has ever been at
UNC, and in fact, Williams - Roy, not Jawad - may opt to put a scrappier player
in the starting lineup and use Williams as a versatile sixth man.
Candidates? Primarily David Noel and Jackie Manuel. Either guy could do a great
job.

Manuel has developed a reputation as a superb defender, and
has been working on his offensive game as well. Noel has shown
himself to be an amazing athlete, and a guy who can really affect a game. His
basketball skills haven't completely caught up - he's a guy who played football
but decided to play basketball in college - but he's got the potential to be a
super college player.

Unlike recent seasons, UNC now also has a bench. There are three guys
who could legitimately play the wing, so that's seven, or about the number of
competent players they have had recently.

Add to them Melvin Scott and Quentin Thomas, and you're up to nine. And
while everyone has more or less written off Damion Grant as a panicky recruiting
mistake by Matt Doherty, Byron Sanders and Reyshawn Terry could at least develop
into competent reserves. On this team, really, they don't even have to be
critical, at least not often. They just need to have a niche. Byron
Sanders could be the shotblocker. Reyshawn Terry may have a tougher time,
since Manuel has become the resident defensive ace and Noel is not far off his
pace. But he can find a role, even if it's just simply being a project or
a practice player.

In the Doherty era, there was a major disconnect between UNC's present and
the storied past. One of the underreported aspects of this was that the
year-to-year traditions were lost, and instead of perhaps the most disciplined
program in the nation, at least psychologically (you never heard anyone speak
out of turn when Dean Smith was coaching), you now have a group which has no
real awareness of that sort of thing. Consequently, you've heard various
people spouting off when they feel like it, including McCants, who broods about
how he is perceived, and Scott, who was publicly unhappy with his playing
time.

And just about everyone weighed in on Doherty when he departed.

With the exceptions of Marvin Williams and Quentin Thomas, every player on
this team was recruited by Doherty. In our opinion, he was, somewhat like
Florida's Billy Donovan, a compulsive collector of talent who was not nearly as
interested in chemistry as he might have been. So you see UNC with guys
who don't necessarily mesh so well, on the court certainly, and perhaps off it
as well.

Of UNC's kids,we truly admire Sean May and Jackie Manuel, and we like David
Noel, and that's about it. It's not that we harbor hatred for the rest,
but McCants has been an ass at times, Scott has appeared self-centered, Jawad
Williams is prone to stupid comments and a soft game, and Raymond Felton, as
immensely talented as he is, and as good a guy as he seems to be, hasn't come
close to harnessing his talent.

Following Doherty's lead, they were a dysfunctional group, but it's entirely
possible, too, that not everything was Doh's fault. One of the competing
theories at the time, which largely fell by the wayside as more and more things
became clear, was that the inmates were running the asylum.

Whichever way you prefer to look at it, the reality is that there were a lot
of unhappy people in Chapel Hill, who were brought in with no clear plan on how
to employ their talents (beyond the current juniors).

Roy Williams has to deal with these people now, has to reshape their
expectations and curb some egos, get some guys to play defense who would rather
not, and get some defenders to maybe develop a more-rounded game as well.

In short, Williams didn't completely get Doh's players to buy in last year,
and while you would hope they would this year, a lot of guys are going to have
to adjust their expectations - again. This happens naturally when a
coaching change takes place, and your role with the previous coach is discarded,
and adding new players to the mix changes a lot.

There's no guarantee that things will be back to what we all grew up
regarding as normal in Chapel Hill this season (if you are above the age of 16,
that is). And after JR Smith ended up in the NBA, and JamesOn Curry was
convicted on drug charges and saw his scholarship withdrawn, it's going to take
even longer than it normally would take for Ol' Roy to get his own guys in.

So with apologies to Dick Vitale and others who would rate UNC #1, they're
going to have to prove to us that a) the guard play has solidified, and b) that
everyone on the team is buying in in the same way.

If those things happen, this is a potentially tremendous team. If they don't,
then we suspect Roy Williams will have several more trips where he'll want to
jump out of the plane, and he'll continue to work feverishly to get a rosterful
of his own players in place.