College Basketball Nation: North Carolina Tar Heels
After a one-year hiatus, North Carolina and Kentucky renew their rivalry in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Ol' Roy versus coach Cal.
One embraces the past. One constantly chases the future. They do things differently, but their contrasting philosophies often end with the same results.
The Tar Heels, who lead the all-time series 22-13, have a “White Out” promotion planned. Williams is too old school to go along with the theme by wearing a white suit. But that doesn’t mean he's outdated.
Perhaps that's what provoked UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath, filling in on Williams' radio show Monday, to go on a rant reminding listeners of Williams' achievements at Carolina.
"Coach obviously has done a great job, with Twitter and this kind of stuff now, it's all about self-promotion," McGrath said. "Coach doesn’t have a Twitter account, he's not going to brag about himself."
Never mind that Calipari has his own website and Twitter account while Williams would like to retire never knowing what it's like to maintain either. Or that Williams once starred on his high school square dance team while Calipari once welcomed Jay Z into his locker room. Or even that Calipari's rosters tend to turn over from the exodus of players to the pros while Williams likes to add pieces each year to build a contender. When the teams meet at 5 p.m. ET in the Dean E. Smith Center, it's not a matchup of whose style is right and whose is wrong.
Williams and Calipari will have more in common than many realize. The Heels and Wildcats have both been a bit unpredictable this season.
Carolina players are still adapting to playing without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are still awaiting word on their eligibility. Their highs have included wins over Louisville and Michigan State, but their lows came in losses to Belmont and UAB.
UK assembled arguably the best freshman class in history, but relying on freshmen -- no matter how talented -- comes with some inconsistency. Earlier in the week Calipari said his team was so young, he had to teach them how to huddle. The Cats' losses were to ranked teams in Michigan State and Baylor, but they've still struggled to find their groove.
The team that wins Saturday will be one step closer to finding it.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks dropped nearly 40 pounds before the season began, yet he still knows quite well how to throw his weight around.
The 6-foot-9, 280-pounder was at it again Saturday night with 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists in just 15 minutes of play during Carolina's 81-50 win over UNC Greensboro, which is coached by former UNC guard Wes Miller.
"Down in the post, he still has that weight, so he uses it very well, spinning off guys getting other people in the air, finishing through contact and stuff like that," sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said.
Had North Carolina coach Roy Williams decided to chart center Meeks' development through the first eight games of the season, chances are the freshman from Charlotte would be ahead of schedule.
Since posting 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against Louisville, Meeks continues to give the Tar Heels reasons to be optimistic about his potential. He has scored double figures in three of their past four games, and his eight rebounds against UNCG marked the third time he has led the team in a single game.
"I'm maintaining my goals right now; I can get better," Meeks said.
But remember, Meeks also put up 15 points and seven rebounds in Wednesday's win over Michigan State. Those Spartans in East Lansing had comparable big men, and Meeks still stood tall.
"His confidence is slowly growing just because he's getting that experience, especially in some big-time games early in the year," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "He's had some success, and that's going to help him. I try to stay on him -- keep his highs not too high and manage his lows. He's a freshman; that's going to happen. He has a chance to be really good."
Last season, Carolina didn't really have a good scoring option in the post. This year, they have two. Brice Johnson added some strength and has become consistent as a sophomore. He is the team's second-leading scorer. But that was expected.
Meeks was a bit of a wild card, because no one knew how fast he would adapt to college basketball.
Williams has raved about Meeks' ability to throw outlet passes to get the Heels in transition. Against the Spartans, he showed he has good vision in the half court too. In a second-half lineup that featured all three of the UNC freshman, Meeks delivered a textbook backdoor pass to fellow freshman Nate Britt for a layup. By the way, Meeks has only three turnovers in eight games.
"Kennedy is great," Paige said. "He takes care of the ball, he makes good decisions in the post, and he can score … I know it's early in his career, but he's showing a lot of positive things."
They were virtually all on display against the Spartans, like a fadeway jump shot, or like an ability to step outside of the paint and shoot a 15-foot jumper with the soft touch of a guard.
And he's not only a scorer. His rebounding total of 53 through eight games trails Johnson for the team lead by only two, despite the fact that Johnson has played nearly 50 more minutes this season.
About the only thing Meeks doesn't have, he still can get as he sheds more weight.
"He's got to keep working on his body, because he needs to be explosive, and he's not explosive in there," Williams said. "He's tipping the ball a couple of times, and if you're more explosive, you go up and get it with two hands and follow or dunk something like that. But offensively he really helps us."
And for now, that's exactly what the Heels need.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The North Carolina Tar Heels could win the national title.
Or they could lose the first round of the NIT.
At this point, both seem equally plausible.
And a month into the season, Roy Williams’ group has proven itself not as consistent, not as hard-nosed, not as untalented, but as the most confusing team in all of college basketball.
In the last three weeks the Tar Heels have picked up big wins over No. 3 Louisville and No. 1 Michigan State. But they’ve also suffered losses to Belmont and UAB.
“I’ll make this short,” Williams said following his team’s 79-65 win on the road over the top-ranked Spartans. “I don’t know. I don’t know. And I don’t know.”
And he doesn’t.
How does a coach possibly put the same players, same plan, same drill on the floor and achieve such variant results?
How does a coach not become confused with that?
Williams certainly is. And who could blame him?
This has been a whirlwind. And the games, just like his players’ play, have been hard to keep track of, hard to diagnose when it goes bad (and it has gone very, very bad) and hard to sustain when it has been good (and it was very, very good against Michigan State).
Midway through the press conference, a UNC media relations employee corrected Williams on the date of a specific practice he had referenced.
For a moment Williams just stood there and looked at him. Then he looked at the media and leaned forward.
“I have no idea what freaking day it is,” Williams responded. “Does that mean today is Wednesday?”
Yes, it was Wednesday. Yes, his team had just beaten the nation’s best. And yes, the UAB/Belmont nightmare was still true.
This team’s identity is that it has no identity. At least not yet. But maybe after this game they have something to build on.
So the questions from the media remained simple, but the answers stayed true.
Did he know any more about his team after this game than he did two days or two weeks ago?
“Who knows?” he said.
Has he ever been a part of a team with this high of highs and this low of lows?
“I have no idea,” Williams said. “I have no idea. … I’d hate to think it has been worse than this.”
“It’s hard to explain,” sophomore Marcus Paige added. “It’s highs and lows so far for us. We beat a top five team, lose, beat another. It’s just, it’s crazy. … Hopefully we can try to understand that consistency is going to pay off.”
Perhaps the only consistent thing about this all was that Williams won. He’s 7-0 against Izzo now and it was the 13th time a UNC team had taken down a top-ranked opponent.
But the truth of the matter is that this inconsistency is what Williams can expect with youth. His team doesn’t even travel a single senior and at times against Izzo’s Spartans the oldest Tar Heel on the floor was a sophomore.
Williams’ leading scorer was a freshman. His leading rebounder was a sophomore. His best inside presence matching up with preseason All-Big Ten post player was, you guessed it, a freshman. A sophomore tallied the most assists. That same sophomore played the most minutes. In fact, 77 percent of the minutes were divided among Williams’ freshmen and sophomores.
And this, matching up with Tom Izzo’s arsenal of experience in Adreian Payne and fellow senior Keith Appling and junior Travis Trice and sophomore All-Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Gary Harris.
“Experience definitely helps combat some of the highs and lows, guys that have been through it before,” Paige said. “This is a great way for us to keep learning that showing what we’re capable of and how good of a year we can have if we stay together and have collective effort.”
But even with that youth, the Tar Heels have shown that when they do stay together, when they have a collective effort, they can play with almost anyone in the country.
And they’ve shown that when they don’t have that, they can lose to almost anyone in the country.
“I think we have to learn that, that every night we have to have the same intensity,” Nate Britt said. “I feel like those are the reasons why we took that loss to UAB, why we took that loss to Belmont, just because we didn’t come out ready to play.”
But against the Spartans, they certainly were ready to play.
The Tar Heels had five players score in double figures and found ways to stave off a possible MSU resurgence every time the Spartans began to try and find life.
North Carolina came into its game as a nine-point underdog and left with a 14-point win.
It’s what makes this game so electrifying.
It’s what makes these games worth playing.
It’s what makes Williams so confused.
“You can’t tell in college basketball what’s going to happen,” Williams said.
Really, that might be the only thing Williams can tell about this team right now.
North Carolina forward Brice Johnson attributed some of the Tar Heels' lack of energy in Sunday’s loss at UAB to the fact that they “didn’t get past” their win over Louisville. That actually might bode well for the Tar Heels Wednesday night heading into the Breslin Center to face No. 1 Michigan State.
If nothing else, coach Roy Williams has had the Heels’ full attention heading into this game. Williams lived up to his vow to be tougher on his team, as Johnson described their practices after the loss as more competitive -- with a lot more running. But along the way of breaking them down, Williams has also tried to build them up.
Williams mentioned coaches who have doubted their team’s ability to win on the road. He’s not one of them.
“I never put much stock in where the game is played, and I think over the long term, 25-plus years, I think that has helped our club,” Williams said.
“I thought to myself I would not want my head coach feeling that way if I am a player," he added. "You’ve got to get your team believing, so hopefully that’s what we get to.”
Believing that they can win and actually pulling it off are two different tasks. Michigan State leading scorer Gary Harris, who averages 17.7 points per game, has said he will play despite a sore ankle that kept him out of the Spartans' last win over Mount St. Mary’s.
The Spartans, traditionally a strong rebounding team, have a plus-five rebound advantage this season. The Heels were just outrebounded 52-37 by UAB.
It’s been tough to believe in these Tar Heels simply because the question most are asking entering this game is which team will show up?
Will it be the Carolina squad that ran away from Oakland and Louisville in wins or the team that looked lethargic in losses to Belmont and UAB. To hear Johnson tell it, the Heels have literally played to the level of their competition.
“Everybody was a lot more energetic (against Louisville), talking a lot more on the defensive end, we were rebounding a lot better,” Johnson said. “We didn’t seem like we had any energy out there (against UAB.)”
Like the Louisville matchup, it will actually help Carolina that the Spartans play at a faster pace. UNC's troubles offensively have come in the halfcourt. If MSU allows the Heels to get in transition, UNC has proved not only that it can play that way, but it can win that way, too.
“We’ve got to play harder, that’s the discouraging thing because, as I said, I don’t think I should coach effort,” Williams said. “I should coach the execution of what we’re doing. I think the other team gave more effort yesterday. That does bother me a great deal.”
That could be trouble as Carolina ventures into Michigan State on Wednesday for the ACC/Big Ten challenge. MSU coach Tom Izzo felt he had a similar problem with his team rebounding, so he brought back his infamous “war drill.” Izzo has occasionally put his players in football pads to prepare them for the contact during the drill, which essentially involves an intentionally missed shot and players going all out to scrap up the ball.
Maybe the Tar Heels could use the same -- the Spartans are currently enjoying a plus-five rebounding advantage over its opponents. From the sounds of it, Williams is waging his own battle to get his team to play with more effort. He said he’s already changed the itinerary for Wednesday, adding that, “I’m going to be one of the meanest blanket blanks in the next 48 hours.”
Just like the Heels bounced back after losing to Belmont, Williams believes they will respond against the Spartans.
“I think we will play really well Wednesday night, is that going to be good enough? We’ll have to wait and see,” Williams said. “They’re going to draw a line in the sand. I’m going to step across. I hope some players come with me.”
TOP STORY: Big Sunday in North Carolina. "The No. 24 Tar Heels haven’t had a November win that warranted such an impromptu celebration in a while. Just one week ago, the Heels’ loss to Belmont was just their second nonconference home defeat during Williams’ tenure. The program also has been carrying an albatross of uncertainty while awaiting a final judgment on the status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. That’s why a little celebration was in order. Carolina needed this one. 'Since June 5 it’s not been a very pleasant time
Alan Major's team has improved every year but has never really sniffed the NCAA tournament. This season, Major's fourth, may be the breakthrough. At the very least, Charlotte is the early favorite to win Conference USA -- and their presence might make that woebegone league a bit better than anyone expected.
(Also, Duke survived Vermont 91-90 at home. That wasn't a holiday thing, and Coach K certainly wasn't feeling celebratory afterward, but it fits nicely into the North Carolina theme, so hey, there you go.)
Georgetown was feeling the love, too: After a loss to Northeastern in the first round in Puerto Rico last week, Georgetown fans were understandably sent on a downward spiral of rage and ennui. (Fortunately for the rest of us, they're really funny when they're mad.) But the Hoyas got one back Sunday, beating VCU 84-80. The win was made even more impressive in that it was played at the Rams' pace: The two teams exchanged 80 possessions, which, given the Hoyas' typical stylistic sloth, felt like even more-- though there were 61 fouls called, which is a lot even in 80 possessions. Georgetown scored 55 points in the second half; Markel Starks, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Joshua Smith scored 23, 26 and 17, respectively.
On the flip side: Is it time to start worrying about VCU? The Rams are now 4-2 with losses to unranked Florida State and Georgetown; their only win in Bayamon was a not particularly impressive 73-67 strugglefest against Long Beach State. The most disconcerting thing: VCU is forcing plenty of their trademark turnovers -- 28 percent of opponents' possessions, to be exact -- but shooting so poorly on the offensive end, and giving so much away at the foul line, that it almost doesn't matter.
Elsewhere: New Mexico rebounded from a Charleston Classic semifinal loss to UMass, while UMass held on against local favorite Clemson to a) move to 6-0 on the season, b) win the Charleston title and c) further convince yours truly that Derrick Kellogg's speedy group has finally cracked the code.
Syracuse is the favorite, but hardly a guarantee. Ahead of Arkansas-California's 3 p.m. tip, the Orange look like the strongest team in the field -- with a caveat. Yes, Syracuse is 4-0, but its wins -- particularly its most recent, a diabolically ugly 56-50 survival of St. Francis at the Carrier Dome -- have showcased the team's struggles to replace guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Syracuse has shot just 31.8 percent from 3 thus far, and 46.6 percent inside the arc; even worse, the Orange have made just 61.7 percent from the free throw line. What's worse? The Orange, who almost always defy the convention that opponents' 3-point range can be a function of defensive excellence (and never more so than in 2012-13) have allowed foes to knock down 37 percent from beyond the arc -- 259th in the country. There is plenty of good news: Syracuse's zone is still dominant on the low block, senior forward C.J. Fair is probably the best player in the tournament, and if freshman point guard Tyler Ennis comes into his own in Maui, what Sean Keely said: Look out.
Other Maui notes:
- The sneaky-good reference above has a lot to do with California, which has played top-15 defense -- and blown out a better-than-you-think Denver team, 77-50 -- to date.
- The Baylor Bears are officially the "non-Syracuse team most likely to win the tournament, at least on paper," because "at least on paper" must always be applied to Scott Drew's talented but occasionally incoherent group. Brady Heslip is still making 3s at a crazy rate (51.9 percent), Cory Jefferson has stepped into the lead usage role, and Isaiah Austin, despite offensive struggles, is blocking 15.9 percent of opponents' shots. But the Bears are losing too many possessions (20.8) to turnovers, and gaining almost none of them back; their 12.9 percent opponent turnover percentage is one of the lowest in the country.
- Oh, by the way, Gonzaga is in this field too. The Zags haven't lost a step on offense without 2012-13 star forward Kelly Olynyk; Gonzaga has averaged 1.18 points per trip to date. That's thanks in large to part to Kevin Pangos, who has made 14 of his 32 3s, good for a 136.9 offensive rating on 25.2-percent usage in four games to date.
- Finally, the Maui also offers a good look at the Gophers of Minnesota, who have been one of the most paper-impressive teams of November. Four of Minnesota's five wins have come at home against inferior opponents, sure, but all of them have been convincing, and their 74-59 Nov. 16 win at Richmond was a legitimately quality victory. New coach Richard Pitino doesn't quite have Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins playing as fast as he advertised in the offseason, but Minnesota has picked up the pace significantly, and at any speed, those two key holdovers from the Tubby Smith era have played brilliantly thus far. Monday's opening round matchup against Syracuse should be fascinating.
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams walked over to his players huddled in a circle and jumping after their 93-84 win over No. 3 Louisville on Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The 63-year-old cracked a smile and disappeared into the blue, his shiny white top barely visible, as he hopped, jumped and bumped into the players. Williams broke from the pack and gave a salute to the fans before the team ran off, hauling the Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship trophy to their locker room.
The No. 24 Tar Heels haven’t had a November win that warranted such an impromptu celebration in a while. Just one week ago, the Heels’ loss to Belmont was just their second nonconference home defeat during Williams’ tenure. The program has also been carrying an albatross of uncertainty while awaiting a final judgment on the status of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
That’s why a little celebration was in order. Carolina needed this one.
“Since June 5th it’s not been a very pleasant time -- it’s been probably the most difficult time I’ve had as a coach,” Williams said. “It has not been fun in every way, shape or form. But today, out on that court watching their excitement, bumping with them, then going in the locker room celebrating, that’s what I coach for.”
Former coach and mentor Dean Smith used to tell Williams he could accept whatever the outcome was as long as the team played well. Williams said he would respond by saying he’d rather win, but he changed his thinking before the Louisville game because of the many growing pains UNC has endured so far.
The Cardinals proved to be the right opponent at the right time for the Heels.
The Cards aren’t as deep in the front court and the Heels seem to never run out of big bodies. The Cards preferred to play a faster pace that the Heels enjoy, too. The Cards preferred to press, and the Heels have been playing two points guards in the lineup with Nate Britt and Marcus Paige.
“We tried to outscore them and I think they were better at it,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
Paige said the Heels were “best in that environment” of playing a fast tempo and it certainly helped that they had a good example to learn from in Ty Lawson. Williams showed his team clips from the Heels’ 2008 Elite Eight win over Louisville in which they consistently beat the press by quickly getting Lawson an outlet pass.
Carolina, which had just 14 turnovers, never allowed the press to be a problem. Often the hidden effect of Louisville’s pressure is end of game fatigue for its opponents. But since Britt and Paige both handled the ball, that wasn’t a problem either.
“There were stretches where I was pretty tired, I played 38 minutes [on Saturday],” Paige said. “Nate being able to be out there, me and him together, kept both us from getting too fatigued and worn down, which is what they want to do.”
Not many could have predicted a nine-point outing on 3-of-11 shooting from James Michael McAdoo, who averaged 17 points, would end in a Carolina victory. But McAdoo’s offensive struggles never were a factor thanks to a group that virtually grew overnight.
Williams called freshman center Kennedy Meeks “one of the worst players on the planet” for his one-point, three rebound performance in five minutes against Richmond, but added that against Louisville he was “unbelievable.”
In his most extensive playing time this season, Meeks nearly posted a triple double with 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. His outlet passes were crucial in helping the Heels break the press.
“I just realize [against Richmond] that’s not the way I play, that’s not the way I’ve played my whole life. It was time for me to step up,” Meeks said. “This is college now, it’s all about me being a man so I did pretty good today.”
Britt, who was benched for critical stretches in the second half against Holy Cross and Belmont, also had his best outing of the season. The freshman guard set personal bests with nine points and five assists.
“I just feel like I’m starting to get more comfortable and I can kind of play like myself,” Britt said. “Earlier it’s just a lot of things I had to learn, lot of things I’m still learning. The more and more I play, I’m starting to get more relaxed and I’m coming into my own.”
Paige continued to show his development in his new role as a shooting guard with a career-high 32 points. That marks the third time in the last four games that the sophomore guard has set a new scoring high. He did it with on efficient 9-of-12 shooting.
Paige had high praise for Louisville’s Russ Smith, who scored a career-high 36 points, saying “there’s a reason why he’s a National Player of the Year candidate.” Paige is playing his way on that list too, whether he realizes it or not.
“I don’t know about all that I’m just trying to help this team win,” Paige said. “Whether it’s dishing the ball, or shooting the ball, whether it’s defending, I’m trying to be the guy that consistently brings something to the table for this team.”
The win changes the season narrative for Carolina and raises expectations back that may have been reconsidered after the Belmont loss.
“We understand that we still have a chance to be special. We just have to come out and play as hard as we did today consistently,” Paige said. “The belief in this locker room is that we’re one of the best teams in the country.”
They proved it by beating the Cardinals, and on this November that’s reason enough for the Tar Heels to celebrate.
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
College football was more exciting Saturday, and I don't love college football: "On a slow Saturday for college basketball, there just weren’t many gems. North Carolina struggled with Richmond but eventually pulled away to win 82-72. Louisville dismissed Fairfield 71-57, which set up a marquee Sunday matchup against the Tar Heels. Winless Tulsa gave Creighton a scare. But overall, it certainly wasn’t the game’s sexiest Saturday. But there were a variety of under-the-radar and mid-major programs that offered some impressive individual efforts." -- Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com
COACHES V. CANCER: Michigan State "got punched, almost KO'd' by Oklahoma; wins Coaches' title 87-76 anyway: "The Sooners came out with something to prove. The Spartans did not. They won anyway, 87-76, despite falling behind by double digits midway through the first half in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. And despite building an 18-point second-half lead, only to fritter it away with turnovers and missed free throws. … They might not have were it not for Keith Appling, whose 3-pointer in the first half ignited a run for MSU and whose three-point play in the second half stopped a run for Oklahoma. That driving layup and ensuing free throw began a run of seven consecutive points for Appling. He finished with 27 -- a career high. He scored many of them down the stretch, driving into the lane, tossing acrobatic floaters." --Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press
**HALL OF FAME TIP-OFF: No. 3 Louisville, No. 24 North Carolina survive in semis, give us marquee title game -- with one caveat: The tournament organizers at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT could rest easy Saturday afternoon. Defending national champs Louisville handled Fairfield 71-57 and continued to look impressive. North Carolina, on the other hand, was a little bit shakier against Richmond -- a more solid, healthier Richmond than in recent seasons, but Richmond all the same.
Strong recap from C.L.: "Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams. The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team." -- C.L. Brown, ESPN.com.
They're also not last season's team, in one very obvious way. The Tar Heels still won't have last season's leading scorer, P.J. Hairston, against Louisville on Sunday, though that is not exactly new news. What is new, now, is the open question of whether Hairston might ever come back for North Carolina. To put it simply, if Williams and UNC are worried that Hairston's summertime dalliances with convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas (and the rental cars Hairston was driving that led back to Thomas's payment info and addresses at rental vendors), then he can't play. If he did, and the NCAA ruled against Hairston or UNC in the future, every game it played in the time being -- whether Richmond or Louisville or wherever -- would be in dispute.
For the first time since Hairston was pulled over, North Carolina officials -- down to Williams himself -- aren't evincing optimism about his return.
— Will Williams ever coach Hairston again? "I think I will," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I think I will. But I don't know." To understand the weight of that quote you need to understand that Williams would never rule anything out until it's officially ruled out. He's forever positive and hopeful. But it should be noted that even the Hall of Fame coach has changed his position since the preseason. Back then, Williams admittedly seemed unsure about how much time Hairston might miss, but he never publicly entertained the idea that Hairston would not play for the Tar Heels again. Now, Williams acknowledges he just doesn't know, and that public uncertainty can be interpreted as serious doubt. … But the prevailing theory among sources around the North Carolina program is that Hairston might not have been completely honest with investigators about the extent of his use of rental cars connected to a convicted felon named Haydn 'Fats' Thomas that were seemingly occupied by Hairston in violation of NCAA bylaws." -- Gary Parrish, CBS
Oh, also: Louisville: It would be a shame to allow the ongoing North Carolina psychodrama to blot out Russ Smith and the Cardinals. Sure, Saturday represents Louisville's first test against quality competition -- besides Fairfield, the Cardinals have treated College of Charleston, Hofstra, Cornell and Hartford like a bored housecat with a mouse. But two things stand out about Louisville thus far:
- Much like VCU, it is still turning people over at the same rate as in 2012-13 despite the new handchecking rules.
- The Cardinals are not turning the ball over themselves. They finished No. 77 in turnover rate in 2012-13 -- coughing up on 18.3 percent of their trips. This season, with Chris Jones installed in place of departed senior Peyton Siva, the Cardinals are turning it over just 11.3 percent of the time.
The small sample size disclaimer applies here. Actually, make that a double disclaimer -- small sample size and poor competition. Jones is unlikely to make things look this easy all season. But the juco transfer junior hasn't missed a step in his first season in Louisville, Smith is even better offensively thus far, and the Cardinals are rolling as a result.
Paradise Jam (updated bracket) semifinal rounds: Seeds mostly held on Day 1 of the Paradise Jam, which I think we should abbreviate to "PJ," even if support among my colleagues remains tepid. Northern Iowa and Maryland square off at 7 p.m. ET, and La Salle gets Providence at 9:30 ET in the winners' half of the bracket.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (updated bracket): Will Act III be as crazy as the first two? Georgetown-VCU sounds like a pretty solid November nonconference game, right? By March, it might be possible for both teams to have fully shaken off the reasons why they played on the final day of Puerto Rico; they may have improved so much by then we'll look back on today's consolation -- yes, consolation -- in a whole different context.
Today, however, it's a product of the unpredictability of the week in Puerto Rico -- where Florida State manhandled VCU and probably should have beaten Michigan late; where Northeastern made Georgetown look like a fellow CAA team, and not a very good one; where Charlotte, a seemingly nondescript program at this point, finds itself in today's 6:30 p.m. ET title game in Bayamon, PR.
With all due respect to the 49ers, the Florida State game may well have hardened Michigan in crucial ways. The Wolverines were physically dominated and just straight-up played badly and still, thanks to some timely, late heroics, managed to dispatch Leonard Hamilton's team and progress to the title game. It's hard to see them losing to Charlotte now.
Then again, we've been wrong before -- which is how we got Georgetown and VCU in the 2 p.m. ET consolation game in the first place. VCU was the favorite coming in to Puerto Rico, but FSU did a number on the Rams in Round 1, and Long Beach State kept that crucial turnover number startlingly low in VCU's win in Round 2. Georgetown has not protected the ball particularly well to date. The Hoyas turn it over on 18.0 percent of their offensive possessions. And their one clear personnel advantage -- massive center Josh Smith -- may not be able to stay on the court in an uptempo affair.
And that's it: There are other tournaments out there, but only so much space on the Internet to discuss them. Enjoy the Sunday of hoops everyone.
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – There’s no convincing Louisville players that they’re not about to face an elite North Carolina squad at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Most of the third-ranked Cardinals said they had not seen the Tar Heels play this season until they watched the Heels beat Richmond in Saturday's first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Despite Carolina being a shell of the team ranked No. 12 in the preseason, the Cardinals are still showing respect for the name.
Maybe a tad too much respect considering P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald did not make the trip for UNC.
“We know they’re the real deal,” Louisville’s Luke Hancock said. “It’s always going to be Carolina, it’s a top program. Coach [Roy] Williams is going to have them ready to play.”
When the schedule was released, a potential Louisville-Carolina matchup looked to be the first real test for both teams. The reality is it will be more of a barometer for the Tar Heels.
With no word on the status of Hairston and McDonald, whose eligibility is under review by the school and NCAA, Carolina will be playing with its current rotation for the foreseeable future. It’s about to hit a rough five-game stretch that includes a Dec. 4 trip to No. 1 Michigan State and a Dec. 14 home date against No. 4 Kentucky.
“We’re definitely going to try to show up -- well, we will show up -- and compete like we did today,” UNC forward James Michael McAdoo said after Saturday's 82-72 victory over the Spiders. “We’ll start focusing on games like this which are definitely huge games for us going into conference play.”
The Cardinals had the kind of win against Fairfield that coach Rick Pitino can use to grab his team's attention. After winning their first four games by an average of nearly 34 points, Pitino called their 71-57 victory on Saturday their “poorest game of the season.” He even hinted that the Cardinals might have been looking ahead to UNC.
Louisville’s postgame locker room reflected his sentiment. Players sat slumped into their lockers, the entire room void of the laughter and energy usually associated with winning. On the contrary, the Cardinals had the look and feel of a group that had just lost.
“It’s eye-opening for us just to not play as well as we want,” Hancock said. “This type of effort will lose against a lot of teams.”
Forward Montrezl Harrell, who led Louisville with 14 points and 12 rebounds, said the Cardinals played like they didn’t respect Fairfield, and it showed early.
“We should have come out and been prepared to play from the very beginning,” Harrell said. “But we weren’t and got burned for it in the first half. Playing against a team like North Carolina, if we start off like that we can really get burned and not be able to bounce back.”
Pitino even elevated the praise for the Heels, after watching his team shoot just 38 percent and his starting backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones commit a combined eight turnovers.
He said North Carolina's size could give the Cardinals problems, especially with the Heels' offensive rebounding.
“You’re going to see a close game [on Sunday] -- if we don’t get blown out,” Pitino said. “If we play this way, there won’t even be a game.”
Just two games ago, Carolina players were thinking they might not belong on a court with Louisville after struggling to a 62-54 win over Holy Cross. McAdoo joked afterward that if the Heels played that poorly against the Cardinals, all he could do was “hope that Louisville played bad, too.”
The bad news for the Heels is Louisville might have gotten that one out of the way.
“We’ll come back,” Pitino said. “I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.”
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams.
The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team.
This team can’t impose its pace and use the fast break to outrun teams. It can’t merely overpower an opponent on sheer talent. It will have to grind out wins much in the fashion of Saturday's 82-72 victory over Richmond in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
North Carolina (3-1) trailed for much of the first half, and its lead didn’t reach double digits until 1:35 remained in the game.
Because P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald have yet to suit up for the Heels, every game could present something new. Williams agreed it’s probably the least conventional team he’s coached since arriving in Chapel Hill.
“By this time of the year most times, it’s fairly close to a set lineup,” Williams said.
Nothing is set this season.
Not the lineups.
Not even the playing style.
Paige is a point guard, but he’s had to play shooting guard with their current roster situation. When he moved back to point for a span against Richmond, forward J.P. Tokoto played shooting guard for the first time this season.
“I played more minutes at point guard in this game than I probably did all year so far,” Paige said. "That was a little different."
Williams generally avoids playing zone defense. But Spiders guard Cedrick Lindsay couldn’t be defended in man-to-man as he scored a career-high 29 points against the Heels.
Lindsay almost single-handedly forced the Heels to unveil a 1-2-2 zone for stretches throughout the game as he was successful driving the lane for baskets. After this game, zone isn’t likely to be a one-time occurrence for Carolina either.
“We have been working more on the zone with this team than any team I’ve ever had,” Williams said. “We gave up some straight drives to the basket, which the zone is supposed to stop that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get a lot better at it, but we’ll play it some more -- there’s no question.”
The game ventured into uncharted territory for senior guard Wade Moody, a walk-on who had played a total of 60 seconds through the first three games. He entered the game with four minutes left in the first half and played three minutes.
“Wade can shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I wanted to give him some time today. You never can tell; he may get more time later on.”
Forward Brice Johnson is making his case for more time -- whether it comes at center or power forward. He came off the bench to record career highs with 24 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double.
In the past three games, Johnson has played center with James Michael McAdoo at power forward during the deciding stretches. It gives the Heels their best scoring options in the frontcourt while Kennedy Meeks and Joel James are still developing.
“I did it last year, so it’s whatever they need,” Johnson said. “I might now be able to guard the biggest guy, but I’ve added a little bit of weight and a little bit of strength so I can hold my own now.”
What the Tar Heels lack in flash, they make up with toughness. Williams said he wanted to see how they would bounce back from their first loss.
They showed their resilience from the free throw line after missing 26 free throws in the loss to Belmont. Carolina responded against Richmond by shooting 70 percent from the line. They showed it during the game after falling behind by nine in the first half but taking a 36-33 lead into halftime.
“With North Carolina basketball, you’ve got five guys on the court that are all capable of going off for big games,” McAdoo said. “I think that’s really what you just saw today -- them trying to take certain things away and other guys stepping up, which is huge, definitely, as the season goes on.”
North Carolina has given the Spiders reason to believe.
No one is giving Fairfield a shot against Louisville in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. So pencil in the Cardinals into Sunday's championship game.
But we have anticipated a Louisville-North Carolina matchup for the title. And we are not alone. The organizers planned this accordingly, selling the event as a major showdown between two Hall of Fame coaches and storied programs.
Oh, and Richmond beat Belmont earlier this season. Could the Spiders spoil this planned matchup?
"I've noticed that," Richmond coach Chris Mooney said of the hype for Louisville-North Carolina any time the Hall of Fame Classic bracket is posted on television or online. "Hopefully we can [upset the plans]. It's a huge opportunity for us. We are pretty good, I think."
The Spiders, two years removed from a Sweet 16 appearance, have the type of point guard they need under Mooney and must have to beat out a player like North Carolina's Marcus Paige. Cedrick Lindsay is averaging 19 points and has nearly as many steals (7) as turnovers (8) in four games.
The Spiders have defended well, save the only loss, to Minnesota. Richmond didn't give up 3s to Belmont (4-of-18); North Carolina did (Belmont was 15-of-37).
The issue for Richmond is its own perimeter shooting.
"We have shot horribly so far [9-for-65 in the first three games, 8-of-26 against zone against Hofstra]," Mooney said. "We are a pretty good shooting team, so those numbers will go up, of course."
They must if the Spiders are to pull off the upset. The frontcourt is still green and James Michael McAdoo has been one of the few strengths for the Tar Heels. This is a wounded UNC team that can't afford to be bruised again so soon after the Belmont loss. UNC sees the need to play Louisville as well, especially with Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., and Kentucky at home within the next few weeks.
The Spiders have an opportunity in an Atlantic 10 that will be led by VCU, UMass and Saint Louis. There is room for a fourth challenger. La Salle has struggled of late. Richmond can seize the spotlight with a win this weekend. The chance is at hand.
The Tar Heels repeatedly talked about the mental aspect of free throw shooting after missing 26 free throws in Sunday’s 83-80 loss to the Bruins. They talked about misses in the first half having a snowball effect and spreading no matter which player went to the line.
“You can talk about it, you can not talk about it -- I mean, it’s free throws,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “He [Roy Williams] can’t make them for us, there’s really not anything you can say to a guy struggling on the line. I mean, what do you say to him?”
So if they miss a few early against the Spiders, does the Belmont outing creep back into their collective minds?
Sophomore J.P. Tokoto's first trip to the line will be the litmus test because he had the toughest outing against Belmont.
Coach Roy Williams said the last time he had the team shoot 200 free throws in practice, Tokoto shot 84 percent. He made his first free throw against Belmont -- then missed the next nine en route to 4-of-16 shooting.
His body language grew increasingly worse with every trip to the line. The uneasiness within the Dean E. Smith Center crowd was palpable until they finally just started clapping in support for Tokoto before he shot his final few free throws.
“That’s pretty much all it was, just mental for me,” he said.
Tokoto was back in the gym Sunday night practicing free throws before reporters had completely cleared out of the media room.
It’s inevitable that he’ll get to the line -- he’s the only natural small forward on the team, and his game is to slash to the rim. Tokoto has the second-most attempts on the team (25), just four behind James Michael McAdoo. No other Carolina player has registered 10 attempts.
Considering that the Heels lost to Belmont and Richmond beat the Bruins, UNC could again be locked in a close game in which free throws matter. Will it be strong enough to handle it?
Well, this wasn’t the plan for the ACC.
The, um, new king of college basketball.
The early hits continued for the league on Tuesday night when NC State suffered an 82-72 home loss to North Carolina Central in overtime and Dayton topped Georgia Tech 82-72 in regulation.
The Flyers over the Yellow Jackets wasn’t a crazy outcome. Both teams are second-tier programs in their respective leagues. But NCCU beat a NC State team whose newest players were ranked the 13th best recruiting class coming into the season.
But NCCU completed its transition from Division II two seasons ago. A loss to NCCU -- at home -- is a big loss for a program that continues to fall from last season’s preseason perch as the favorite to win the 2013 ACC crown.
Kudos to both Dayton’s Archie Miller and NCCU’s Levelle Moton. That’s a pair of big wins for two young coaches.
But they’re a problem (potentially) for the ACC.
When Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse all announced that they were joining the ACC in 2013, it was easy to envision the ACC superseding the Big Ten as the top conference in college basketball, especially with Louisville coming in 2014.
And it’s far too early to dismiss that possibility. But it’s not the top league right now. Not even close.
The NCAA selection committee doesn’t care about conference rankings. But the Twitterverse does.
And many folks assumed the ACC would top the game’s hierarchy this year.
OK, I assumed the ACC would top college basketball in 2013-14.
But the entire conference has failed to justify the early buzz. There are far more questions than answers in the ACC right now.
Those losses by a pair of middle-of-the-pack-at-best ACC teams extended a troubling start for a league that should be on the rise. And there’s still time to get there. Plenty of time.
But the Big Ten has been praised as the nation’s best league in recent years because it has possessed both powerhouses and tough second-tier squads. Iowa won 25 games last year and went 9-9 in the Big Ten but failed to reach the NCAA tournament.
It wasn’t easy to get a win in Iowa City last year. Or Minneapolis. Or Champaign.
And when NC State, a Sweet 16 squad in 2011-12, loses to a team that competed at the Division II level a few years ago, it affects the overall reputation of the conference.
Miami losing to Saint Francis (New York) didn’t help, either. USC-Upstate beat Virginia Tech. Belmont beat North Carolina over the weekend. Boston College is 1-3. Maryland is 1-2.
The league’s top is shaky. The middle is even rougher. And the latter is really the most critical factor in the way that a conference is judged. How many teams will compete for an NCAA tournament slot?
That’s difficult to determine in the ACC right now, but these early nonconference upsets will only make it tougher for the ACC to maximize its potential in the postseason.
So far, the ACC hype has not equaled the substance we’ve witnessed from the conference in the first few weeks of the season.
I think Duke, which is led by superstar freshman Jabari Parker, is really good.
What else do I think about the ACC at this point?
Ronnie McAdoo didn’t tolerate any fighting or cursing, and he didn’t play favorites, either. His son, James Michael McAdoo, had to win like every other kid from the block if he wanted to keep playing. That’s why the son’s consistent choice of a teammate no one else would ever pick initially surprised his father.
“I would say, ‘Jay, if you pick him, chances are you’re going to lose. And if you lose, you’ve got to sit out because you’ve got 15 other kids waiting to play,’ ” Ronnie McAdoo said. “He said, ‘Dad, I don’t care. If I don’t pick him, no one else will.’ He would always pick this kid every time he showed up to play basketball. That’s James Michael.”
Recruiting services and coaches originally knew the 6-foot-9 junior forward from Norfolk, Va., as James McAdoo. Before arriving at Carolina, he requested that Michael be added. It was far from a decision shaped by reasons of vanity.
Ronnie McAdoo considered James McPherson his best friend. Along with James' older brother, Michael, they grew up together in Mebane, N.C. James McPherson attended Old Dominion with McAdoo. The brothers were making a trip back home from ODU when they were killed in a car accident.
Ray Broxton, who also played at Old Dominion, was another close friend who met a tragic end. Ronnie McAdoo said Broxton had gone to play professionally in South America, where he died in an accident.
“I told my wife my first son would be named after my three best friends -- James McPherson, Michael McPherson and Ray Broxton,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “So his name is James Michael Ray McAdoo.”
The McAdoos have pictures of all three around their house. When James Michael was a toddler, he’d often point to those frames just as his parents had, knowing there was more to the story but not knowing why.
“It probably wasn’t until I got to high school that I could really understand the magnitude of being named after them,” he said. “ . . . I was, like, I should probably really take on that first name and really honor both of them and I knew it’d be really huge to my father.”
It was a huge name, all right, and not just to his parents. By his senior season at Norfolk Christian High School, he was a big deal in the world of college basketball recruiting.
McAdoo won USA Basketball’s 2009 Male Athlete of the Year award, adding him to an elite list that includes Carolina recipients Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Sean May. McAdoo accumulated more honors and accolades than he cared to receive, admitting many of his trophies are “collecting dust somewhere.”
Dust doesn’t settle on expectations, though. And those piled up before McAdoo ever put on a Tar Heels uniform. There were not-so-silent whispers that he’d be a one-and-done talent. He was projected as a NBA lottery pick.
“It doesn’t really affect me when I hear or see what other people might be thinking just because I know what I’m capable of doing and I expect what I expect out of myself,” McAdoo said. “When I know I don’t get the results I want, I beat myself up, but I don’t lose sleep at night. It just adds to the fire, adds to the motivation.”
There’s a crazy kind of peer pressure among elite college basketball players, that somehow if you stay in school for more than a year, it indicates some type of flaw. McAdoo has twice returned to Chapel Hill to play.
“Last year that might have gotten in his head a little bit as people where hyping him up at the beginning of the season,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “He’s ready to come in and play his game. I think that’s a different mindset he has coming into the year.”
McAdoo found it silly that he even had to have a formal announcement that he was returning for his junior year. If it were up to him, he would have slipped back on campus without having to say a word.
The decision mirrored one he made before completing his junior year of high school. McAdoo could have reclassified and enrolled at Carolina for the 2010-11 season. He opted against it, partly because “it just didn’t feel right.”
He received confirmation that he did the right thing when he joined his classmates on a mission trip to Nicaragua, where no one looked at him as a basketball player, even though he towered over everyone.
“You go down on trips like that and you ... think you might be the one giving back to the people,” McAdoo said. “But in the end, after like two weeks, I was definitely one that changed. It’s an experience that I will never forget.”
McAdoo said the school chosen to receive help was located next to a wasteland. People lived in shanties among heaps of trash. He helped hoist plastic tarps to shield them from the rain, handed out food, and “just tried to help where we could.”
McAdoo admits that in his freshman year, he relied a little too much on his talent and didn’t spend enough time cultivating it.
“Coming to college just as a regular student, there’s already enough distractions,” McAdoo said. “Being known by everybody and knowing that you’re on the basketball team, you can lose sight of what got you here.”
That led to McAdoo putting too much pressure on himself as a sophomore. It didn’t help matters when he had to play center in a four-guard lineup. As a junior, he finally feels as if he’s found his comfort zone.
UNC coach Roy Williams said McAdoo was a more “focused player than I’ve ever seen” during the offseason. It showed in the season opener against Oakland, when he led the team with 21 points and nine rebounds.
McAdoo still wants to fulfill that NBA dream, but he doesn't believe he's completed his purpose yet in Chapel Hill.
“I would have loved for our team to have won the national championship my freshman year, me to have balled out and be in the NBA right now making millions, but God had a different plan,” McAdoo said. “So with that, I’m having a great time. Great teammates. I love my family. I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
On the boards.
Rebounding was most certainly a struggle last season when the Heels were forced to play a four-guard lineup that moved forward James Michael McAdoo to center. Carolina held its lowest rebounding margin (+1.6) of the Roy Williams era and came close to being the first team since 2003-04 to get outrebounded.
It shouldn’t be that close this season.
While UNC awaits word from the NCAA regarding eligibility issues for Hairston and McDonald, Williams will be forced to use a big lineup at times. He could even potentially (however temporary) use a lineup that features J.P. Tokoto at shooting guard and McAdoo at small forward.
Having the team’s two best rebounders paired with a frontcourt that could include forward Brice Johnson, who had the second highest rebounds per minute last season, would be an overpowering matchup for most of their non-conference foes.
Carolina doesn’t face a team that finished on the plus side of rebounding margin until the fifth game of the year when it will play either Fairfield or Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.
Consider UNC's 2013-14 non-conference opponents' rebounding margin (& national rank) from last season:
Oakland -0.8 (205)
Holy Cross 0.0 (142)
Belmont -1.5 (T-240)
Richmond -5.8 (331)
Fairfield +0.8 (153) or Louisville +3.6 (66)
UAB +1.7 (120)
Michigan State +7.6 (10)
UNCG -0.9 (209)
Kentucky +4.3 (48)
Texas +0.9 (149)
Davidson +2.0 (114)
Northern Kentucky -5.0 (N/A)
UNCW -1.5 (233)
Rebounding has also been a point of emphasis with Williams in determining who will get to start at center. It’s why Joel James is more focused on his rebounding technique than he is post moves.
“I feel like if you make that contact first, you have a better chance of rebounding the basketball,” James said. “It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming.”
Statistically speaking, the Heels controlled the boards better in 2007-08 than any team during the Williams’ 10 seasons. They enjoyed a rebounding margin advantage of 11 per game. While the 2011-12 team grabbed the most total rebounds, averaging 45.0 per game, their rebounding margin was slightly behind at 10.4 per game.
This team might not quite reach that stratosphere, but all signs indicate rebounding will be once again be a strength this season.