Archive | March 2012

And Then There Was One (ACC Team Left): Elite 8 Preview

No. 1 North Carolina (32-5) vs. No. 2 Kansas (30-6), 5:05 PM, CBS (St. Louis, MO)

Which decision does this guy regret more: wearing a giant Jayhawk head, or crying?

Carolina had one of its ugliest offensive outings of the season in their Sweet 16 win over Ohio on Friday, and it seemed clear that they missed their point guard Kendall Marshall (broken wrist). According to the Fayetteville Observer, Marshall said yesterday that he is in pain whenever he tries to catch or pass with his right hand, and that makes his status seem doubtful for Sunday.

It seemed like the Tar Heels needed Marshall more than ever when things got difficult in the second half and they needed to rally. But they may not have him long (if at all), so Carolina is going to have to get used to it and play with more of a sense of urgency offensively.

Key to the game: The players outside the paint. With the battle down low sure to be a great one on both ends, both teams will need their frontcourts and their benches to step up. Against NC State, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey combined to shoot 10-of-24 and score 26 points while their six teammates had 34 points on 14-of-40 shooting. Carolina’s John Henson and Tyler Zeller combined for 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting against Ohio while their six teammates had 39 points on 12-of-39 shooting. Both Kansas and Carolina each had a guard step up: UNC’s Reggie Bullock had 17 and Elijah Johnson had 11 for Kansas. But everyone else on both teams did not play well. The battle in the paint might cancel out an advantage for either team, so someone’s guards are going to have to step up.

Opponent to watch: Thomas Robinson, Kansas. The National Player of the Year candidate is going to get his, as NC State found out. But he’s been limited in two straight games now, and it’s no coincidence Kansas has a combined margin of victory of six points over two double-digit seeds. Robinson has shot just 9-of-29 from the floor (31%) in the last two games and averaged 14.5 points (but 14 rebounds). More important than Robinson’s actual numbers: Kansas seems lost offensively when he’s not playing well. So If Robinson returns to his player of the year form against North Carolina, whether it be through UNC foul trouble or the sheer force of Robinson’s will, that would likely spell the end for Carolina.

Prediction: Kansas 72, North Carolina 67

Random Mascot Facts: I covered the origin of the Jayhawk in my last post, but Kansas didn’t have a costumed mascot until the 1960’s (Big Jay). But there is a smaller mascot, Baby Jay. And that one came out – literally – in 1971 during the Homecoming football game against Kansas State. Kansas rolled out a giant blue egg and at halftime, Baby Jay was “hatched” on the field. Amy Hurst, the original Baby Jay, made the costume herself (it cost $53 and weighed 30 pounds).

Baby Jay.

Last week: 5-4

Season: (148-54) (16-7 Postseason)

NCAA Tournament: ACC Sweet 16 Previews

No. 1 North Carolina (31-5) vs. No. 13 Ohio (29-7), 7:47 PM, TBS (St. Louis, MO)

Early male and female versions of the Ohio bobcat.

Kendall Marshall is likely out for this game, so Carolina is going to have to make do without its point guard. The Tar Heels are capable of doing that, but they’re playing an Ohio team that can force a ton of turnovers and will pressure the Carolina backup point guards.

Key to the game: Carolina using its size advantage. The tallest Ohio player is 6-8, and their two NCAA tournament opponents have hit 53.2% of their two-point attempts (Ohio made 46.2% from two). But the Bobcats have won in the tournament by getting to the foul line and hitting three’s (15-of-34, or 44.1%) while their opponents have hit just 9-of-38 three’s (23.7%). Maybe the Bobcats, who shoot 33.8% from three on the year, will go cold. But even if they don’t, Carolina has to make sure it dominates the paint on both ends, which it doesn’t need Marshall to do.

Opponent to watch: D.J. Cooper. The 5-11 junior point guard has been among the national leaders in both assist rate and steal rate since his freshman year, and he has basically been the Ohio offense. Lately, he’s been a tricky matchup for opponents since he’s hitting three-pointers (41.7% in the NCAA tournament) and slashing to the basket. He’s averaging 19.8 points and 6.4 assists over the last five games.

While Kendall Marshall was hardly a defensive dynamo, he still called the defenses for Carolina and helped his teammates get where they needed to be since he knew opponents’ sets. Michigan and South Florida are pretty good defensive teams, and even they couldn’t find a way to contain him. It seems like a tall order for a freshman point guard or even a very solid defensive player in Justin Watts, who is not used to guarding point guards.

Prediction: North Carolina 74, Ohio 65

Random Mascot Facts: Ohio was just known as the “Green and White” until 1925 when they picked the Bobcat “for its reputation as a sly, wily, scrappy animal”. They renamed their mascot “Rufus” in 2006 (because the bobcat species name is Lynx rufus). In 1940, Bing Crosby gave Ohio a live bobcathe had received from an fan of his swing band (called The Bobcats). It went to the Cleveland Zoo and eventually died after it was allegedly poisoned.

And today’s Bobcat mascot is perhaps best known for doing this to the Buckeye:

No. 11 NC State (24-12) vs. No. 2 Kansas (29-6), 10:17 PM, TBS (St. Louis, MO)

The Jayhawk in 1917. No, seriously. It's not a duck.

NC State believes it can win this game, even facing a very good Kansas team in St. Louis (which is just under a five-hour drive from Lawrence). If State can play smart basketball and maintain its self-belief throughout any adversity during the game, the Wolfpack will at least have a chance down the stretch.

Key to the game: NC State’s inside game vs. Kansas. The Jayhawks present all kinds of matchup problems for NC State on both ends with a front line of potential National Player of the Year in Thomas Robinson (6-9) and 7-foot shot-blocking machine Jeff Withey. But C.J. Leslie presents matchup problems for Kansas as well with his athleticism, and Richard Howell can be just as tenacious as Robinson on the glass. And like NC State, Kansas doesn’t have much of a bench. State needs to find a way to get Kansas’ bigs in trouble as they did Georgetown’s. If State is the team in foul trouble, it could be a long evening.

Opponent to watch: Tyshawn Taylor. After a very shaky start to the season, Taylor has been fantastic, leading his team in scoring during the Big 12 season. His strength has been as a scorer (of his 13 games with 20 or more points, 11 have come in the last 19 games). He shoots nearly 50% from the floor and 42% from three, and he takes plenty of shots. Taylor also bounced back from some horrifying turnover numbers (including 11 in a loss to Duke). He committed three or fewer turnovers in 14 of Kansas’s final 21 games.

If he has a weakness, it’s at the foul line where he shoots just 69.4 percent, and he doesn’t rebound very well. That’s a good matchup for State’s Lorenzo Brown, who averages 4.5 rebounds. With as well as Brown has been defending lately, this matchup could help turn the game in the Wolfpack’s favor. Brown seems more than ready to take on the challenge, but it will be a stiff test as Taylor hardly lacks for confidence.

Prediction: Kansas 78, NC State 71

Random Mascot Facts: A Jayhawk is a mythical bird (combination of a blue jay and a sparrow hark) and its usage dates back to 1848, referencing the settlers in the Kansas Territory. A blue jay is known to rob other nests and a sparrow hawk is a stealthy hunter, so as this website says: “Don’t turn your back on this bird.” But the best recent story about the Jayhawk involved a little girl (a Kansas State fan) who refused to color in a picture of a Jayhawk and instead colored in a picture of a Wildcat:

Last week: 5-4

Season: 146-54 (14-7 Postseason)

North Carolina is Not Ready to Surrender

Harrison Barnes was much less cautious than usual in Carolina's Tuesday press conference.

CHAPEL HILL, NC — On Sunday around 8:00 PM, the Carolina locker room made a funeral seem like a joyous place to be. They mumbled responses to questions they couldn’t possibly know how to answer in the moments after finding out Kendall Marshall – their leader, their point guard – could miss the rest of the NCAA tournament. In that instant, all of their national title hopes and dreams could be dead, and they knew that.

Two days later, the sad faces and short answers were replaced by the traits that have characterized this team all season: thoughtfulness, a little bit of humor and some steely resolve.

Tyler Zeller came into Smith Center media room first. The seven-footer laughed heartily at the notion that the NC State fans in St. Louis would be rooting for them, then spoke glowingly of freshman James Michael McAdoo, who has emerged in the last few weeks.

When asked if he still believed Carolina could still win it all, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. And when questioned about team morale, he became the first of three Tar Heels to reference ESPN. “We just watched a little ESPN segment (in the locker room) and we were joking about it. They basically said that we’re coming back to Chapel Hill instead of going to New Orleans (for the Final Four),” Zeller said.

John Henson followed Zeller, and Henson’s impish grin was back in full force as he cracked jokes about being the third-string point guard. He did take reps in practice a few months ago, running Carolina’s ‘box’ play. (When told head coach Roy Williams described it as cute, Henson wrinkled his nose and said: “I don’t know if it was ‘cute’. I haven’t been described as ‘cute’ for a long time by someone other than a female.”)

While Zeller had compliments for both freshman backup point guard Stilman White and senior utility man Justin Watts (both will split time at the point in Marshall’s potential absence), Henson wanted to pump up White. “People underestimate Stilman but he’s athletic. He can handle the ball. He can make great plays. He’s got a nice shot as well,” he said.

Henson joked about his wardrobe choice (a black t-shirt and red shorts) being in honor of NC State and then he too referenced ESPN. “I’ve seen ESPN SportsCenter this morning. They’re writing us off, which is fine with me,” Henson said in a way that suggested it was about as fine with him as Grant Gibbs’ slap at his injured wrist on Sunday. “We’re going to come out there, play hard and we’re still going to be the Carolina team that we were this year.”

Then in came Harrison Barnes. The notoriously stoic sophomore came out contrary to form, firing on all cylinders. And he was the most direct in his ESPN critique:

“Our confidence hasn’t changed at all. We feel like we have people that can step up,” Barnes said. “(ESPN personality) Doug Gottlieb, the person who knows everything, has his own statements. But we’re going to go out there and continue to play good basketball.”

“He couldn’t shoot free throws, so,” a reporter said.

“Among other things,” Barnes quipped.

It was somewhat ironic that the most pressure-laden sophomore arguably in UNC history was asked if the pressure was off now that Marshall could be out for the tournament. He raised an eyebrow incredulously.

“Overnight, we’ve just gotten kind of out of the race for a national championship, or people telling us – your friend Doug Gottlieb – we’re going to go back to Chapel Hill and not going to New Orleans,” Barnes said. “We just keep going. Whether the spotlight’s on us or not, we’re just going to continue to play basketball and continue to do what we do.”

An ESPN producer then told Barnes he had Gottlieb’s cell phone number and asked what he wanted him to text to Gottlieb. “Just text him, see if he can get that flight over to St. Louis. I’d love to meet him,” Barnes said dryly.

Even Barnes had jokes, talking about White’s first few experiences at point guard (“When he first got out there, we were a little scared that he might have an anxiety attack and just pass out”). And he had praise for Watts, who is adored by all of his teammates.

“(Watts) does a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on the court, just in terms of his leadership and his ability to help guys through their slumps and bring the freshmen in and really teach them the ropes of Carolina basketball,” Barnes said. “I think there would be a learning curve if he’s trying to go out there and get 10 assists a game. That’s hard to do for anybody. But in terms of just going out there and just running the offense, just being calm and collected, I feel like he can do that right now.”

All three of them were asked if they still believed, or if they wondered if all the injuries were some sort of a sign. The question made Zeller bring up his faith, something he rarely does in front of the assembled media.

“They never said it was easy. God’s got a plan for each and every one of us. You never know what it is. You’ve just got to keep going with what (God has) given you,” Zeller said. “There’s a scripture verse that says, ‘He’ll never give you anything that you can’t handle,’ and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to make sure that we put our resources in and we try to prepare as much as possible with what we have and (God will) take care of us. If it’s meant to be, it is and if it’s not, it’s not.”

Some were less philosophical. “Nothing really surprises me anymore,” Barnes responded with a shrug.  “That’s just the nature of the beast, really. You just have to roll with the punches and keep going.”

Their head coach accidentally cut Barnes’s press conference short by walking into it mid-answer. While Williams didn’t reference ESPN or Doug Gottlieb, he alluded to the extraordinarily large chip that he has always had on his shoulder.

“We had a scouting report about somebody that said, ‘He’s not very athletic, but he is aggressive.’ I said to my team, ‘That’s me, because I’m not very athletic but by golly, I am aggressive.’ Everybody said, ‘Whoa, what kind of practice are we going to have today?’” Williams said.

“I do love challenges, but I would love my challenge a lot more if I had that point guard out there, there’s no question about that.” As he reiterated repeatedly, though: “It doesn’t make any difference. We’ve got to play.”

Williams even had an epic rant when asked for one time too many about Marshall’s possible status on Friday. It can only be done justice in totality:

“I have no idea. I know you don’t like that but guys, I’m being truthful with you. If (Marshall) comes running in here right now and says, ‘God, I can play!’ I’ll say, ‘Well let’s talk about that.’ But he’s in a frickin’ cast from his thumb to his back. It’s not quite that big. It looked that big when he came out of surgery.

“I know I’m not helping you, but you’re asking me to do – I’ll tell you what. We’ll do it this way. He’s going to start the game, and he’s going to play. All right? Now what’s going to happen Friday night? ‘Damn liar, he told us all that stuff!’ Now, if I say, ‘There is no way in Hades that he is going to play’ and he plays, what are y’all going to say? ‘Well, why didn’t he tell us that?’ You’ve got me between a rock and a hard place.

“I cannot give you any answers. I’ve given everybody all the answers that I can give because I’ve said honestly: I. Do. Not. Know.” He then followed it up with an actual giggle.

It was clear how overwhelmed he still was, scrambling to find a way to replace Marshall in just three days, when asked if the pressure to win a national title was off.

“I’m putting probably more pressure on myself right now because I’ve got to try to come up with a way to replace somebody that is darned hard to replace,” Williams said. “It’s mind-boggling the kind of thought processes I’m going through right now. So I don’t feel that there’s any pressure taken off, but the pressure that I put on myself is what has driven me all the time anyway.”

Some of Williams’ residual stress was also from coping with the heaviness of it all. He was near tears twice, once when talking about what it was like to enter the x-ray room and find a red-eyed, devastated Marshall.

The second came when talking about how strong his team has been. “I’ve got a bunch of kids that have handled a lot of adversity,” Williams said, proceeding to list all the injuries, departures and suspensions that have plagued the team over the last two seasons.

“My team has been pretty dadgum special with their toughness. So I hope they don’t just rely on Ole Roy, because I’m not good enough. They’ve got to help me.”

And they seem ready to do that. Like their head coach, they have a chip on their shoulder (thanks, in part evidently, to Doug Gottlieb). Like their coach, they can find humor in almost any situation. And like their coach, they still believe: both in themselves and in each other.

NC State’s Sweet 16 Journey

Richard Howell's improvement this season is one of many reasons NC State will face No. 2-seed Kansas on Friday night in its first Sweet 16 game since 2005.

RALEIGH, NC — Mark Gottfried’s successful approach with C.J. Leslie has been well-documented. But it didn’t begin and end with the 6-foot-9 budding star.

Hired last April to replace Sidney Lowe, Gottfried inherited a group that had done more than its fair share of losing and seen plenty of disappointment. But Gottfried had a ready-made group of veterans – a senior and two juniors – that could help him win right away as he rebuilt NC State.

Senior C.J. Williams and juniors Scott Wood and Richard Howell had been through plenty of bad times, and they didn’t want to spend the rest of their time in school rebuilding a program only to see the fruits pay off after graduation.

And so the question became how quickly would they buy in, if at all?

“First thing that had to happen with all these guys is they needed to get to know me and I needed to get to know them,” Gottfried said. “Until there’s a level of trust, players sometimes, they build a wall and it’s hard to break that wall. Who is this guy? Why do I need to listen to you?”

The toughest of the three was Howell. The 6-foot-8 (on a good day, per his head coach) forward is an imposing physical presence despite his lack of size relative to his competition. Post-practice sweat dripped steadily off of the end of his beard and he stared straight ahead as he talked about learning to trust Gottfried.

“It’s very hard for a coach to come in here and just click instantly with a player, especially a player who had been here two years and had been through the worst possible times,” Howell said. “The main thing is just trusting him. He tells us every day, nobody wants us to do better than he does and that’s something that we’ve bought into. That’s something that we’ve trusted and it’s got us this far, so we’re going to keep continuing to trust him.”

Getting through to Howell was a unique obstacle for Gottfried, particularly on a personal level. “There was a hard wall there that was hard to penetrate – not just on the floor, but away from the game,” Gottfried said of Howell. “If we sat down and just talked about his family or life, there weren’t a lot of times he wanted to let us in, let me in. Over time, that began to break down a little bit more.”

Even with Williams, a well-respected team leader, acceptance didn’t happen overnight. Williams had seen his playing time fluctuate wildly in his previous three years while capable Wolfpack teams never came close to reaching their potential.

When Gottfried was announced as the new head coach, the first thing Williams did is look up the new coach’s records his first year at Murray State and Alabama. He liked what he saw, but neither of Gottfried’s first-year teams made the NCAA tournament. His future teams did, and often: in 1997 and 1998, Murray State made the tournament and from 2002-06, Alabama did as well.

Williams, though, had just one more shot to make the NCAA tournament. So he went to Gottfried days after his hiring and let his feelings be known. “I said, ‘Coach, if you’re for this rebuilding stuff, I can’t do that. I’m a senior. I need to win right now. I’ve always had a dream of at least playing in the NCAA tournament’,” Williams said.

“‘I need to know that that’s what you want to do.’ He straight up told me, ‘C.J., I’m trying to win right now. I’m not trying to do the rebuilding. I don’t want to waste time.’”

While no other player could pinpoint a specific “aha” moment, Scott Wood did. It was less than two weeks after Gottfried had been hired. Wood went up to what he called the war room above the Dail Center to meet with Gottfried and assistant coach Bobby Lutz.

“He showed me the offense and what he likes to see, and then he put it into the picture that this is where everybody’s going to be,” Wood said. “It let me see into the future of how it was going to work, and it really made me realize that this could be a good thing for us.”

Williams said Gottfried watched tape of each player from the previous year to evaluate what they could do. He let each player know what he expected of them individually, and each player had to buy into that before they could win as a team.

“He watched tape of us from last year and what we can do,” Williams said. As a coach, he just kind of coached us from that point, seeing what we did as a group and then taking it like, ‘Okay, now I see what you do. This is what I expect out of you.’

“The accountability that we have as individual players has helped us build this team environment.”

Williams recalled Gottfried showing the team tapes of his Alabama teams to give them an idea of what the offense would look like. “Each of us was like, ‘Oh, okay, so this is where my shot is going to come from and this is where his shot is going to be.’ We all saw that everybody is going to have an equal opportunity to score their points,” Williams said.

And they have. All five NC State starters averaged between 10 and 14 points in the regular season, which has held up in the postseason as well. Even after coming up short in a crucial three-game stretch in late February, which included a blown 20-point lead at Duke and home losses to Florida State and North Carolina, the Wolfpack managed to inch forward.

Their offense has been among the most efficient in the league all year, even as players like Wood and Williams went through slumps. They’ve returned to form, and both have hit huge shots in big moments in the NCAA tournament. Among the more recent improvements is a defense that has been downright dominant at times. That’s a far cry from where it was in November, or even December.

“(Gottfried’s) confidence is unbelievable in us. He tells us if we go out there and play hard, the sky is the limit to what we can do,” Howell said. “It definitely shows, not only on the offensive end but especially on the defensive end as well. I felt like that was something we were lacking last year.”

Howell’s progression has been part of the journey as well. He has a propensity to pick up silly fouls, and NC State isn’t the same team when he’s not on the floor, throwing his body around to fight for every available rebound. But he has stayed out of foul trouble for most of the last two games. He was dominant in the first round with 22 points against San Diego State and against Georgetown, he struggled to score but drew two fouls in the first 5:40 on the Hoyas’ star center Henry Sims.

State has always had Sweet 16 talent. It just had to believe that. The Wolfpack’s collapse at Duke and a disappointing close loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament called into question their ability to finish against good teams. Gottfried kept telling his team they were improving and they just lost to some good teams. But NC State ended the regular season without any great wins.

Now, the Wolfpack has two NCAA tournament wins over teams that spent most of the year in the top 25. Gottfried told his team all year that they were good enough to play with anyone in the country. Finally, the Pack and the nation have proof.

“It’s my job to convince our team that we are good enough, and we have to become good enough. It’s not smoke and mirrors. It’s not something you can just talk about,” Gottfried said. “You have to get better, and we did get better. But at the same time, I think this particular team needed – and still does – to believe that they’re good enough. And I do think that they believe that, so that’s exciting.”

Carolina, John Henson Finally Had Enough

Any hint of a smile was gone from the normally-gregarious John Henson's face after he felt Creighton's Grant Gibbs had targeted his injured wrist after the whistle on Sunday.

“Hates it physical” was a line in the scouting report that the News and Observer’s UNC beat writer Andrew Carter found on the copier in the Smith Center in early January. It applied to both Carolina big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but it’s been the rap on Carolina in general.

“Soft” is a word that’s often been used when discussing the Tar Heels. And it’s not as if they haven’t earned it at times this year.

In Las Vegas against UNLV, a team full of undersized bigs killed Carolina on the boards en route to the Tar Heels’ first loss. Florida State stomped on Carolina’s face, then kicked it in the head a few times for good measure in a 33-point beat-down in Tallahassee.

“At the beginning of the season, Coach (Roy Williams) told us, ‘We just need more toughness because we’re missing easy shots around the rim, not doing all the things that show toughness’,” North Carolina freshman P.J. Hairston said.

To be physical with the Tar Heels, to get in their heads legally and cleanly, is easier said than done. Florida State managed to do it quite well, even provoking John Henson into a technical foul late in their romp over Carolina in January for slapping the ball out of Okaro White’s hands (a frustration play, but childish in hindsight).

And so when Henson felt Creighton’s Grant Gibbs got in a few extra slaps at his injured wrist at the 13:44 mark of the first half, he took exception. “(Gibbs) hit at my wrist about 3-4 times after the whistle had blown,” Henson said. “It got me a little fired up. It was just a culmination of things.”

It’s rare to find Henson without a boyish grin either already plastered on his face or threatening to poke its way out. Even Henson’s anger seems to be masked with a tinge of good humor.

But there were nothing but bad intentions on the gangly seven-footer’s face as he held the ball behind his back and walked chest-first into Gibbs, sticking his face right into Gibbs’ as he let him know what he thought of the play.

“John is probably the goofiest guy I know. He does nothing but laugh and smile and joke around, so when he gets mad, it has to be for a reason,” Hairston said.

Gibbs didn’t make eye contact with Henson and seemed uncomfortable in the moment, and the referees stepped in quickly to separate them. But Henson earned a technical foul for his outburst, and Gibbs walked back towards the Creighton bench and gave his team a wink.

There have been varying interpretations of that wink. At best, Gibbs was trying to entice Henson (mission accomplished) and at worst, he was trying to see how hurt Henson’s wrist actually was.

“I used to tell my guys all the time (that) I would fight anybody on a basketball court because you just pose for a second and then people come around and separate you,” Roy Williams said. “I want to see a guy who wants to fight on the playground when everybody’s going to say, ‘Okay, we need a little break, you guys go at it.’ That’s the guy I like on my team.”

Both Gibbs and Henson certainly showed elements of the fake bravado that comes with basketball fighting, although judging by how both reacted, neither seemed down for playground fighting, particularly Gibbs.

But it’s hardly new: it’s the kind of physicality that teams have displayed against Carolina all year. Creighton’s Gregory Echenique delivered a forearm shiver to an unsuspecting Tyler Zeller as he ran down the court (completely intentional; even head coach Greg McDermott lectured Echenique about the play afterwards) and there was plenty of off-ball contact not whistled.

It’s become as much a part of opponents’ game plans as getting back in transition or crashing the defensive boards. “We just have to play through it. That’s just one of the big things that we have to overcome: say someone’s bumping us, we talk to the ref. We’ll tell the ref and the ref will look out for it,” Hairston said. “Then that’s when we just play through it and play hard.

“And that’s when our run starts – if someone tries to get aggressive with us and we score on them, we get in their head first before they get in ours.”

That’s how the Tar Heels chose to respond. If it was a culmination of factors that led Henson to blow up, it was just as much that for the team in general. They are fed up with the perception that they can be pushed around, and they have shown that the last month.

It’s hard to identify the exact moment – Hairston said it was the game at NC State, a game the Wolfpack so desperately wanted. Carolina came out and quieted the hostile NC State crowd every time it wanted to get riled up.

“We just came out (at NC State) and went on this run and it showed,” Hairston said. “Then when we went to Duke, we played that whole game like it was just pure toughness. You could tell it in our eyes.”

That Duke game was revenge for Carolina’s earlier loss to Duke at home. But it was also a cleansing of sorts. The Duke loss in Chapel Hill had been a microcosm of Carolina’s season to date: flashes of brilliance mixed in with head-scratchingly silly plays and a failure to finish.

Closing the regular season in Durham, Carolina showed they have grown beyond that team. Instead of half-hearted efforts to get around screens, Carolina guards deftly maneuvered through them as a tall teammate stepped out to hedge hard on the perimeter.

Duke didn’t beat Carolina from the three-point line because the Tar Heels wouldn’t allow it. They exerted their will. Carolina’s failure to do that in prior games was a reason people questioned their toughness. It was a reason that the scout on them has been to rough them up, get in their heads, because they can’t handle it mentally.

So when Henson had his wrist slapped at, it wasn’t just about their teammate. It was a challenge to the entire team. “It sparked us. The next play, it was a big scramble on the floor for the ball – me, Harrison (Barnes) and like four other players,” Hairston said.

“It just pumped us up and when you pump us up, it’s not a good thing for the other team.”

No, it isn’t. Creighton learned that the hard way, as Carolina went on a 27-13 run over eight minutes to take a 39-24 lead with 5:33 to play before half.

It hasn’t always been pretty for Carolina. They aren’t the best offensive team (even with point guard Kendall Marshall, who could miss the remainder of the tournament with a broken wrist). But when Marshall was in foul trouble at Maryland, the Tar Heels fought through it. They could have felt sorry for themselves. But maybe it was that game in College Park when they realized no one is going to feel sorry for them.

If they want to withstand runs by opponents, they have to score. If they want to stop runs, they have to defend. Sometimes, it really is that simple.

And they have to expect that if Marshall does play, opponents will target his wrist. Seeing how Henson reacted the last time someone got in a few shots post-whistle, an opponent will likely “test” Henson’s wrist as well. They’ll just have to respond the same way they did against Creighton.

The Tar Heels had shown toughness in other ways this season, like staring down an opponent after a big play or dunking late in a game at Maryland to quiet the College Park residents.

Whether those types of actions represented fake toughness is debatable. But for Roy Williams, the only kind of toughness he cares about is the kind that shows up on the scoreboard. They’ve shown that the last month, through all circumstances.

“After John perceived it to be unfair on (Gibbs’) play with him, my whole team got fired up. My statement is, ‘Let’s beat them on the scoreboard. That’s the only place that matters.’

“The way our team responded, they didn’t like what had happened to John and the next few minutes, we really played inspired basketball. But you don’t need to talk – just play,” Williams said.

James Michael McAdoo Will Face His Biggest Test Yet

North Carolina freshman James Michael McAdoo might not be starting on Sunday, but he'll likely spend time guarding Creighton star Doug McDermott.

Comparisons between Creighton and Duke were brought up quite a bit by both North Carolina head coach Roy Williams and the players. That’s mostly because of Creighton’s reliance on the three-pointer (the Bluejays score 31% of their points from three). UNLV, Florida State (twice) and Duke have been able to get going from three-point range and upset the Tar Heels. If eight-seed Creighton is going knock off the top-seeded Tar Heels, they’ll have to get hot from three as well.

Taking out the Kentucky loss, the three teams that have beaten North Carolina (four total games) have combined to shoot 50-of-117 (42.7%) from three and make 12.5 per game. Creighton makes 8.2 three-pointers a game and shoots 42.5% on the year, so putting up numbers like that wouldn’t be crazy for the Bluejays.

But another important similarity between all the teams that have beatean Carolina – UNLV, Duke and even FSU to a degree – is that all have multiple three-point shooting threats, including a big man that can make a few. Creighton has five players that have made at least 20 three-pointers this year, and they’re led by Doug McDermott, a 6-foot-7 Stretch 4.

If John Henson can’t go for the Tar Heels, freshman James Michael McAdoo likely will have to chase around McDermott, who is averaging 23 points on 61% shooting (49.5% from three).

“James is a fantastic defender,” Carolina center Tyler Zeller said of McAdoo. “He’s got great feet and moves his feet very well, so he’ll be able to stay in front of him. I know (Doug) McDermott is a fantastic player, but I think James will be able to match up with him pretty well.”

McAdoo compared to McDermott to Duke’s Ryan Kelly, another Stretch 4. That matchup has given Carolina a lot of problems in the past if for no other reason than it takes one of its shot-blockers away from the basket. But Carolina’s bigs (and their guards, for that matter) have struggled sometimes with switching screens and on the perimeter or chasing around a Stretch 4 that can move around and get his own shot.

“Going over the scouting report, he’s a great player and it’s not only me guarding him but there’s going to be four other guys on the court that have got to step up,” McAdoo said. “He’s averaging 23.0 points a game, so he’s proved himself. We’ve just got to go out there and try to make him uncomfortable.”

The freshman has come a long way, but there’s a ways left to go certainly. Defensively is probably where he’s made the most progress as most of his points are coming off of putbacks. But even then, he finds himself lost at times.

So guarding a guy that was a National Player of the Year candidate as late as January – in an NCAA tournament game – will present quite the challenge.

“He has a tendency to overrun on the defensive end. He can get off balance and then all of a sudden he’s out there around the centerline trying to find out where the other team is and his guy is 37 feet away from him,” Williams said.

Of course, Williams took halftime of yesterday’s Vermont game to demonstrate to McAdoo “in perfect stance and perfect quickness” exactly how he wanted it done. “One play in the second half, he’s out there denying and he stepped and the guy went back door and he stepped back out,” Williams said.

“All of a sudden he looked over at the bench and he was grinning, looking at us and nodding,” Williams said. “He’s still a kid and that’s something that we really enjoy, too.”

The laid-back freshman looks more like a young Rick Fox than a modern-day college basketball player. His retro-style Carolina hat had an air of coolness to it that some of his other teammates’ fashion choices didn’t.

But the reason for choices like that can be simpler than they seem.

“I like the old-school, snapback baseball cap look,” McAdoo said. He smiled sheepishly, and in a quieter voice than normal (his deep voice is usually barely audible), added, “Plus, I need a haircut.”

NCAA Tournament: ACC Round of 32 Previews

No. 11 NC State (23-12) vs. No. 3 Georgetown (24-8), 12:15 PM, CBS (Columbus, OH)

Jack the Bulldog.

This is a nightmarish matchup for NC State, but as the 11-seed playing the 3-seed, the Wolfpack have nothing to lose. They aren’t approaching the game that way, though (nor should they). Still, Georgetown’s Princeton offense and pesky defense that can go both zone and man-to-man will pose a lot of problems.

Key to the game: Patience on both ends. NC State won’t have an easy time getting good looks on offense. The Hoyas hold opponents to just 43.1% effective field goal percentage, fifth nationally, and just 27.1% from three. They are long, quick and experienced all over the floor. But State has faced some pretty disruptive defenses already (North Carolina and Florida State). Offensively, NC State has to work hard to get the best shot possible.

Defensively, head coach Mark Gottfried pointed out today that even if Georgetown gets a backdoor lay-up after bleeding 25-30 seconds off the shot-clock, it still counts for two points but it can be so demoralizing that it feels like eight points. The Wolfpack have to stay focused and not get down on themselves when that happens.

Prediction: Georgetown 64, NC State 61

Random Mascot Facts: There’s no such thing as a hoya, but in the late 1800’s students combined the Greek hoia or hoya (meaning “what” or “such”) and the Latin “saxa” to form a cheer: “Hoya saxa!” (“What rocks!”) It has stuck every since. Different breeds of dog have been used as the actual mascot since the early 1900s but Jack the Bulldog has been used since 1964. They’ve used a person in a suit since the 70’s as well as the live mascot.

No. 1 North Carolina (30-5) vs. No. 8 Creighton (29-5), 5:15 PM, CBS (Greensboro, NC)

Billy Bluejay stalks the sidelines during Creighton's win over Alabama on Friday.

Carolina’s bracket has opened up – the No. 2 and 3 seeds (Kansas and Georgetown) are still alive, but every other seed but one remaining is 10 or worse. The lone exception is the team Carolina faces tomorrow, Creighton (an eight-seed). So in theory, the Tar Heels could advance to the Final Four without facing a seed higher than eight. And in the Sweet 16, should Carolina advance, they are guaranteed to face a 12 (South Florida) or 13 (Ohio). But they have to win this first.

Key to the game: The three-point line. The only way Creighton has any shot at beating North Carolina is if they hit a ton of three-pointers. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, the Bluejays are capable of doing that, shooting a blazing 42.5% on the year. Five Bluejays have hit 20 or more three’s. Alabama defends the three-point line very well and Creighton hit 9-of-21 (42.9%) against them on Friday. Carolina will have to crowd the three-point arc and try to force Creighton to beat them with two-pointers.

Creighton’s not a very good defensive team either, but the Bluejays are going to pack the middle and try to force Carolina to beat them from the outside. Particularly if John Henson plays, the Tar Heels will have the horses to will their way to points in the paint. But they still could use a little more offensive balance than they’ve had the last few games, and now is as good a time as any for UNC to knock down a few extra three’s.

Prediction: North Carolina 84, Creighton 74

Random Mascot Facts: Creighton is the only Division-I school to use a bluejay as its mascot. Prior to 1924, Creighton’s teams were called the Hilltoppers but too many teams used that name. The Omaha Bee helped find a new nickname by asking readers to submit their choices. Since the school colors were blue and white, they decided on bluejay.

U mad, Billy Bluejay?

No. 3 Florida State (25-9) vs. No. 6 Cincinnati (25-10), 9:40 PM, TBS (Nashville, TN)

This picture is from the game that got the Bearcat arrested for throwing snowballs at fans.

Florida State is inconsistent enough to have lost in their first NCAA Tournament game but good enough to reach the Final Four. The Seminoles probably would have lost that game to St. Bonaventure as recently as a month ago. But they didn’t, and now they’ll face a good Cincinnati team for the right to advance to their second straight Sweet 16.

Key to the game: Turnovers. Florida State has cut down on them when it mattered (just a 15.7% loss of ball against St. Bonaventure) but their 20.3% in the ACC title game against North Carolina (compared to just 7.9% by UNC) was one of many reasons that game was close. Cincinnati doesn’t turn the ball over much (just 16.2% per Ken Pomeroy, 10th-lowest nationally) and the Bearcats have a 12.3% steal percentage (18th nationally). Florida State has to avoid give-aways and be able to get stops if they can’t force any.

Prediction: Florida State 71, Cincinnati 60

Random Mascot Facts: When playing Kentucky in football in 1914, a cheerleader from Cincinnati (talking about fullback Leonard “Teddy” Baehr) started the chant: “They may be the Wildcats, but we have a Baehr-cat on our side.” The crowd started chanting “Come on, Baehr-cat!” and it stuck after awhile, but not until 1919. Here’s the worst bearcat suit ever made (from 1950):

And this, of course, is a real bearcat (worth it just for how weird it is):

Last week: 8-3

Season: (144-52) (12-5 Postseason)

NCAA Tournament: ACC Friday First- (Sorry, Second-Round) Action

No. 11 NC State (22-12) vs. No. 6 San Diego State (26-7), 12:40 PM, truTV (Columbus, OH)

Friendliest Aztec warrior of all-time. Just don't give him a tepoztopilli.

Even President Obama is sort of on the NC State bandwagon (picking them to go to the Sweet 16), but State isn’t taking itself too seriously. The Wolfpack repeatedly said on Tuesday that they viewed this as a business trip, and they also understand that they’re the lower seed for a reason. But this is a good matchup for them and if they maintain focus throughout, they should win.

Key to the game: Turnovers. Neither team turns it over a lot (State is 88th and SDSU is 91st in turnover percentage) or forces a lot, but turnovers have come back to bite both teams from time to time. State had its second-highest loss of ball in 2012 against North Carolina on Saturday (19.75%) and many of them were in the second half. Carolina scored just eight points off of those turnovers, but they were still empty possessions. San Diego State has had its own issues, losing some low-scoring affairs because of opponents’ points off turnovers. Neither team wants to give up easy baskets to the other in a game like this because of how much both teams want to run.

Prediction: NC State 77, San Diego State 69

Random Mascot Facts: The school’s first nicknames were “Normalities” (SDSU used to be known as Normal College), “Professors” and my personal favorite “Wampus Cats”. But after a committee formed in 1924, they decided on the Aztecs. In 2003, the Aztec Warrior was named the official mascot replacing the former one, Monty Zuma:

No. 10 Virginia (22-9) vs. No. 7 Florida (23-10), 2:10 PM, TNT (Omaha, NE)

1970's version of Albert the Alligator.

This is actually a pretty good matchup for Virginia. Florida is a very athletic team, but the Gators can be coerced into taking bad shots, which plays into Virginia’s hands.

Key to the game: The three-point line. Florida is third nationally in percentage of points scored from beyond the arc (39.1%), but Virginia’s three-point defense is stingy (12th nationally, allowing 29.5%). Florida shoots 39% from three on the year, but it’s been their undoing at times (6-of-27 at Kentucky in a 20-point loss, 5-of-23 in a surprising loss at Georgia). But Virginia really needs to make some, too. The Cavaliers are shooting just 17-of-57 (29.8%) in the last four games, three losses. They need to knock down some shots to keep Florida’s defense honest.

Prediction: Virginia 64, Florida 61

Random Mascot Facts: The history of Florida’s gator mascot was covered here in the preview for Florida-FSU earlier this year. But it’s worth repeating that not only did several live alligators serve as the mascot (although some were killed), but also a motorized reptile. This was an early representation of the alligator:

No. 3 Florida State (24-9) vs. No. 14 St. Bonaventure (20-11), 2:45 PM, CBS (Nashville, TN)

This mascot experiment, the Bona Fanatic, did not end well for St. Bonaventure. Or the person in the suit.

Coming off of two huge wins in the ACC Tournament over Duke and North Carolina, Florida State is becoming a trendy pick. Even Dick Vitale picked the Seminoles to make the Final Four. But with the way FSU’s season has gone, they could lose to St. Bonaventure or make the Final Four and neither would be a surprise. But if they get past this first-round game, they could be dangerous.

Key to the game: Keeping the Bonnies off the foul line. St. Bonaventure has a pretty high free-throw rate (42.8, 35th in the country) and they make most of their attempts (76%, 18th nationally). Florida State’s opponents score 22.2% of their points from the line, but don’t have an usually high free throw rate (37.6). But a big reason Duke and North Carolina were able to keep it close against FSU last weekend was foul shots. The Seminoles have the depth to weather foul trouble, but they need to limit St. Bonaventure’s attempts.

Prediction: Florida State 71, St. Bonaventure 63

Random Mascot Facts: When NC State played St. Bonaventure in December, a preview post covered the illustrious history of the St. Bonaventure mascot. It includes a Brown Indian, a Bona Fanatic (a la the Phillie Phanatic, which the students hated so much that they attacked it) and the current Bona Wolf. The Bona Wolf was chosen because it is “aggressive, yet friendly; leaner and more athletic than previous representations”:

The Bona Wolf.

No. 1 North Carolina (29-5) vs. No. 16 Vermont (24-11), 4:10 PM, TBS (Greensboro, NC)

Rally the Catamount.

It doesn’t look like Carolina will have John Henson for this game, but it shouldn’t need him. Vermont is a solid team that plays good defense, but they don’t have a fraction of Carolina’s talent.

Key to the game: Patience. Vermont is one of the slower-paced teams in the field (294th in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo rankings), and obviously the Tar Heels like to get a lot of possessions. Carolina has already faced two of the slowest teams in the country (Wisconsin and Virginia) and is 3-0 against them, although none of the wins were pretty. Vermont will likely show some zone against the Tar Heels and Carolina has to work hard to find the best shot.

Prediction: North Carolina 88, Vermont 63

Random Mascot Facts: There’s no such thing as an actual catamount; the word could refer to several wild cat species. But the word comes from “catamountain” (what it sounds like: cats that live in the mountains). The last actual sighting of a catamount in Vermont came in 1881, though. And in 1926, the student newspaper put mascot names up for a vote. Only male students were allowed to vote. (Fantastic.) The other options besides catamount? Tomcat, camel and cow.

 

No. 2 Duke (27-6) vs. No. 15 Lehigh (26-7), 7:15 PM, CBS (Greensboro, NC)

Clutch the Mountain Hawk, Lehigh's mascot.

Lehigh hasn’t lost by double digits this year (by nine at Michigan State, at Iowa State and at American). That loss at American on February 9th was Lehigh’s last loss. But Lehigh hasn’t played a team as good as Duke since December 22 (at Michigan State). Duke might be reeling right now, and this game might be closer than expected, but Duke should still win fairly easily.

Key to the game: Slowing down Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was full of praise for Lehigh’s standout junior guard, who is like Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, but efficient. McCollum takes 33.7% of his team’s shots but he is still 162nd nationally in ORtg (offensive rating). For perspective, Stoglin is 427th. Duke’s defense is actually playing much better though, and they’ve disrupted some high-usage players in the past like Stoglin. But if McCollum goes off, Duke could be in trouble.

Prediction: Duke 77, Lehigh 68

Random Mascot Facts: Lehigh was known as the Engineers until 1995, when they changed to the Mountain Hawks. There’s actually no such thing as a mountain hawk, but it’s not uncommon to see hawks flying over Lehigh’s campus (which is in the mountains). The name was changed because Lehigh wanted to be perceived as a more well-rounded school that wasn’t just engineers.

 

Last week: 8-3

Season: 141-50 (9-3 Postseason)

NIT: Valparaiso at Miami

Goofy version of Valpo's crusader mascot.

Miami is reeling right now: disappointed after missing the NCAA tournament and beaten down by the NCAA (Durand Scott has been declared ineligible less than two weeks after Reggie Johnson had to sit out). But with talented young players like Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney Jones, all they can do is soldier on and try to get valuable postseason experience.

Key to the game: Shane Larkin. Miami’s young/speedy point guard will be handling the ball most of the time without Durand Scott, and he’s already shown he can do that. Against Florida State last Friday, Larkin took a season-high 14 shots (making six) and had 16 points, adding eight rebounds and five assists. It’s a very Scott-like stat line, and if Larkin can use the NIT to become a more seasoned player, Miami will be very scary next year.

Prediction: Miami 85, Valparaiso 72

Random Mascot Fact: Valparaiso used to have a mascot called the Uhlan (which has some sort of iffy ties to the Germans/Nazism). They changed to yet another war-mongering group fighting for its ideals: the Crusaders.

Last week: 8-3

Season: 140-50 (68-28 ACC) (8-3 Postseason)

Duke, Ryan Kelly and the Stretch 4

Duke's Ryan Kelly, a versatile big man, fills a key role for Duke that has been around for decades.

DURHAM, NC — It’s no coincidence that without injured junior forward Ryan Kelly (sprained foot) Duke’s offense struggled this weekend in the ACC Tournament. An effective three-point shooter who can also play down low, Kelly’s Stretch 4 position is as identifiable with Duke as pesky defense.

“I really think that we kind of started that whole thing about 25 years ago,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If you look at the history of our program, we’ve had a lot of really good guys in that position who have gone out to be pros and lottery picks.”

Mark Alarie was the first, although the three-point line didn’t exist while he was at Duke. But Danny Ferry, one of the best players in college basketball history, helped perfect it. The 6-10 forward hit nearly 39% of his three-point attempts and added 7.0 rebounds over his Duke career.

Grant Hill and even the great Christian Laettner – known as a center – could stretch the floor. Krzyzewski cited a game at Louisiana State against a tough zone defense anchored by Shaquille O’Neal where two Laettner three-pointers helped give Duke the win.

“To me, as much as anything in our program, that position has been kind of innovative and then it became – obviously, anything we do is never innovative,” Krzyzewski said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “But we actually do come up with some good things over the years.”

A long line of Stretch 4’s have followed, multi-dimensional matchup nightmares that make Duke nearly impossible to guard: Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, Luol Deng, Kyle Singler.

“If you’re a chess player, it’s like having the queen. That guy could do anything,” Krzyzewski said. “He could go anywhere on the court and as a result, you have a lot of unpredictable movement, which gave space to your other guys. That’s why we’ve been such a good driving team and usually, a team you can’t double in the post.”

Kelly isn’t as dynamic a scorer or as good a rebounder as the Stretch 4’s that preceded him. But his presence alone – particularly when he’s hitting shots – makes a huge difference.

The Blue Devils struggled offensively without him in two games in the ACC Tournament, shooting just 37.1% from the floor and averaging 59.5 points. Duke has to hit three’s to win, and it made just 10-of-46 three-pointers in Atlanta.

“With (Kelly) out, you can load up better on the three. You can hedge better or step in better on ball screens because you can protect the lane and you’re not worried about two or three guys. You might be worried about one other guy and you can match up with him,” Krzyzewski said. “Quite frankly, you become an easier team to defend.”

In the five Duke losses Kelly has played in, he shot 8-of-31 from the floor and averaged 5.0 points. In his other 26 games, he shot 99-of-210 and averaged 13.2 points.

A big reason Duke beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill earlier this season was that Kelly took the Tar Heels’ shot-blocker John Henson out on the perimeter. The most critical thing Kelly’s presence does is create spacing on the floor. Duke loves to spread the court and drive, and with a Stretch 4 like Kelly, everyone is a threat to make a three-pointer after a kick-out.

“Spacing is good when the spacers can do what space gives you. So when we have (Mason and Miles) Plumlee in there, it’s a more congested court, although we’re better on the boards,” Krzyzewski said. “Then if they play off your point (guard) like they did down in Atlanta – whoever it is, Tyler (Thornton) or Quinn (Cook) – then that clogs it even more.”

Krzyzewski likes to have a Stretch 4, but he’s the all-time winningest coach in college basketball because he can adjust to his personnel. Kelly sprained his foot in the week preceding the ACC Tournament, and he has been running in the pool. “If we were playing water polo, I guess he’d be ready to go today. But we’re not,” Krzyzewski quipped.

Krzyzewski said he hopes to have Kelly back by Thursday, but right now he is day-to-day. Duke can win games in the NCAA tournament without him, but having him will be key in the later rounds.

“We have to do some things to get movement, and that’s what we worked on (Monday at practice), to get a little bit different movement than we had down in Atlanta,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s stuff that we’ve done during the year but gotten away from a little bit. … At times the way we were running offense, we were offensively-challenged, which we haven’t been until (Kelly) went out.”

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