Heels will be fine once Lawson returns

March, 13, 2009
ATLANTA -- The only thing wrong with North Carolina is that Ty Lawson didn't play in the ACC tournament.

There's nothing to see here. Keep moving. Carolina is hardly falling apart, even though it needed a final-possession basket to beat Virginia Tech in the ACC quarterfinal, then lost to Florida State by three when it couldn't get a tying 3-pointer.

Let's be clear: The Tar Heels didn't have the ACC Player of the Year in the conference tournament, as Lawson was out with a jammed right toe. Assuming he's OK for the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., why should anyone worry?

"Most of us can't absorb losing someone like Lawson,'' Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "I'm sure they're going to do well in the NCAA tournament.''

They will. The Heels might not win the title, but they haven't dipped from favorite status -- provided Lawson is healthy.

Sitting at his locker stall with his right foot in an ice-filled waste bucket in the Georgia Dome on Saturday afternoon, Lawson said he would be fine for Thursday's first-round competition. "It's getting better. I'll be ready,'' Lawson said.

Senior guard Bobby Frasor did an admirable job in Lawson's absence against Florida State's Toney Douglas, with four points, three assists and one turnover in 37 minutes. But the Tar Heels would have taken different shots if the beep-beep point guard were running the show. Nor would Douglas have been able to do as much if Lawson were defending him, even if Lawson's defense hadn't bee as sound in multiple games this season against BC's Tyrese Rice, Miami's Jack McClinton, Wake Forest's Jeff Teague and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez.

"Everybody gets easier shots,'' North Carolina assistant coach Joe Holladay said of the Tar Heels' offense when Lawson plays. "The defense would concentrate on him. We would get shots easier. He can cover the ball, too, pretty good.''

North Carolina coach Roy Williams wasn't fretting the Tar Heels' standing with the NCAA tournament selection committee. The Tar Heels' body of work should protect them from being selected lower than a 1-seed, considering they won the ACC outright, beat Duke twice and took down Florida State on the road.

The Tar Heels get picked apart by their legion of fans and those who don't call the baby blue their favorite team. This is nothing new for Williams. He has had two of the most dissected jobs in the country at Kansas and Carolina. (Kentucky and Indiana likely would round out the top four in either order you'd put them.)

So Williams knows there will be great intrigue as to why the Tar Heels lost and why they didn't look as sharp here in Atlanta. But the answer is simple: The Heels didn't have Lawson.

Former player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, wings Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and talented post players Ed Davis and Deon Thompson are still more than most teams can handle, but Lawson elevates all of them.

"If he plays well, if we have everybody and we're playing well, we're a tough out,'' Williams said. "We have weapons in several areas, and we've played better defense than we've been given credit for.''

Williams said he believes there always are eight or nine teams that can get on a run and win the title. His goal is for Carolina to be one of the eight or nine teams that fit that category. The Tar Heels do -- if Lawson plays.

• Duke's Kyle Singler has raised his game to another level. He is using the angles well to score and is so much more aggressive going to the basket, hunting for his shot.

• Duke can win the national title because of Singler, Gerald Henderson's ability to take players one-on-one and Jon Scheyer's 3-point backbreaking shooting. A month ago, I didn't believe the Blue Devils could win the tournament, but in the right bracket, they could get to Detroit and win the whole thing. Yet they're also fragile enough to get beaten the first weekend.

• Maryland's Eric Hayes is as much the reason as Vasquez for the Terps' run toward a bid during the past three weeks. Hayes has found his shot and confidence, and he complements Vasquez quite well.

• Can't say enough about how much Maryland's Gary Williams continues to be one of the best coaches in the country. Few coaches would have kept this team in play despite its limitations. Williams deserves Hall of Fame consideration.

• Boston College is here to stay in the upper echelon of the ACC. The Eagles don't quit. That's how BC coach Al Skinner has been his whole life. It took a while for this team to adopt his personality, but the players are on board. The Eagles will return all their players besides Tyrese Rice and have a stud in Rakim Sanders, a matchup problem for all opponents. Josh Southern finally understands how to finish in the post. Biko Paris proved in Atlanta he can hit money shots. Reggie Jackson will mature and become a regular scorer.

The Eagles are an accomplished bunch. They've played in eight NCAA tournaments in the past 12 seasons and have been a regular beast in the ACC in three of the four seasons they've been in the league. Former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom was one of many coaches I talked to during the past week who said Skinner is a "great coach" who maximizes his talent and knows his teams as well as anyone in the country.

Skinner's top assistant, Pat Duquette, should be one of the top choices for Boston University's coach opening, and Pitt associate head coach Tom Herrion should be another lead candidate. Also expect to hear in the mix the names of Louisville assistant Richard Pitino, former Providence coach Tim Welsh and Florida Atlantic assistant and BU alumnus Mike Jarvis II. If Duquette were to leave, Skinner could promote Preston Murphy, a rising assistant coach and former University of Rhode Island guard. If you talk to Murphy, you'll see someone who has a great grasp on the game, relates well to players and gets the biz.

• UCLA coach Ben Howland said Saturday that senior point guard Darren Collison was still not healthy after suffering a bruised tailbone. Collison needs to be at full strength for the Bruins to make a run at the Final Four for the fourth straight season. The Bruins probably would love to be in a regional that plays its first- and second-round games on Friday and Sunday to get extra rest.

• I'm not shocked by USC's run to the Pac-10 title, as it was one of my favorite teams following a preseason practice tour. But the Trojans could never find a consistent stride. Freshman DeMar DeRozan played like a star in the Pac-10 tournament.

• I hope someone gets in Gani Lawal's ear and tells him to stay at Georgia Tech. He has a load of potential but isn't ready to contribute in the NBA. If he stays at Georgia Tech to play with incoming freshman Derrick Favors, the Yellow Jackets should dispose of their recent run of mediocrity.

Solomon Alabi could be a star next season. Alabi is further along offensively than Hasheem Thabeet was two years ago. If he stays and develops at Florida State instead of chasing money and declaring for the draft, he'll keep the Seminoles as a contender in the ACC and will eventually contribute in the NBA.

• The ACC was able to pack fans into the Georgia Dome. But domes really should be used for NCAA tournament Final Fours. Conference tournaments and regionals should be in NBA-level arenas. Create a demand for tickets and ensure that the atmosphere is disruptive. Echo noise doesn't do it for me, and I never sensed hostility in the dome.

• After talking to multiple sources, here is some of the chatter about two coaching openings: 1. Missouri's Mike Anderson definitely would have a shot at attaining the Alabama job if he so desired. 2. Arizona would love to get a shot at Minnesota's Tubby Smith, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Pitt's Jamie Dixon, but if all three stay put (a strong possibility), UNLV's Lon Kruger could be a viable candidate. All my dealings with Kruger indicate he enjoys UNLV, and Vegas clearly presents less pressure than Tucson would.

• Pitt isn't too worried about its loss to West Virginia in the Big East quarterfinals. Senior point guard Levance Fields didn't practice before the Big East tournament, as he was nursing a bruised back and strained groin after a fall during a game against Marquette two weeks ago. If the Panthers don't play until Friday in Dayton, as projected, Fields would have a full week to get ready for the NCAA tournament.

• I continue to marvel at the job Temple's Fran Dunphy has done after coming over from Penn. Dunphy took a dramatic turn going from an Ivy League school to coaching a city school like Temple. Sure, both are in Philadelphia, but Dunphy hadn't gone through the scholarship-recruiting world. Temple always was a tough out in the A-10 tournament under former coach John Chaney. Nothing has changed, and the Owls won the tournament Saturday for the second time in as many tries under Dunphy.

• Todd Bozeman's return to the NCAA tournament is quite a comeback for the former Cal coach. Bozeman made Morgan State relevant immediately upon his arrival. His team lost the MEAC final last season but came away with a victory Saturday. Morgan State gave Bozeman an opportunity, but he should receive a look if an athletic director is looking for a hungry coach. Bozeman has proved he can do well in a postcheating world after being famously banished 10 years for paying a recruit's father while at Cal. (He served an eight year show-cause penalty but 10 years total before earning another head-coaching job).

• Former Arizona assistant coach Jim Rosborough, whom then-coach Lute Olson pushed out in favor of Arizona assistant Kevin O'Neill two springs ago, hopes to latch on as an assistant again. He's ready to leave Tucson after serving as an assistant in the athletic department. Rosborough has plenty of passion for the sport still left in him and, like UConn assistant George Blaney, definitely would help a staff.

• Oregon State was the first school to accept an invitation from the College Basketball Invitational. The 16-team tournament, which started last season and was won by Tulsa, hopes to get the teams the NIT chooses to ignore. Oregon State will host a first-round game next week. The Beavers hit a skid at the end of the season but won seven Pac-10 games under first-year coach Craig Robinson after winning zero in the Pac-10 last season.

• The Big East has New York for its tournament home. The Pac-10 has L.A. The Big 12 can rotate between Oklahoma City and Kansas City. The Big Ten does the same with Indianapolis and Chicago. The SEC should lock in Atlanta, but at Philips Arena and not the Georgia Dome. (Sorry, but create the demand and atmosphere even with reliable Kentucky fans.) The ACC should base itself in Charlotte. No offense to the ACC headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., but the Bobcats Arena makes more sense. It's easier to get in and out of Charlotte's airport, and the downtown has hotels within walking distance to the arena.

• Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he would make the argument that sitting idle from the Monday before Selection Sunday until a first-round game the following Thursday or Friday in the NCAA tournament is just as difficult as playing on Selection Sunday in a conference final, then having to play a few days later. Few said keeping the players in game mode at a highly competitive state is a challenge. This past week, the Zags have been playing games, keeping score and doing their best to keep their competitive fire burning.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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