Sunday, February 14, 2010

A huge fall from grace for college hoops' best


I tend to think that I watch A LOT of college basketball and know a good deal about teams, players, rankings, and all that pizzazz. 

But, I swear, before Sunday afternoon I barely remembered that Louisville — yes, that unranked team led by that suddenly not-so-faithful coach — was a game away from, yes, the Final Four a season ago. Hard to believe, I know. But the Cardinals were a very good basketball team in March 2010.

They lost some talented players, of course — Terrence Williams, meet the New Jersey Nets and the true definition of a losing team — and that's a reason for falling from the ranks of the country's best. But before shocking Syracuse inside the Carrier Dome Sunday afternoon, I didn't have the Cardinals pegged as an NCAA Tournament team. Now they might sneak into the Dance and hang out for a few days.

Which isn't a bad fate compared to what North Carolina and Connecticut are going through. These are the truly shocking falls from grace. On a Monday night last April, I found myself in a swarm of thousands of yelling, burning, telephone-pole climbing college students — and others — dominating Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Just minutes earlier in Detroit, the Heels had thoroughly outplayed Michigan State to win Roy Williams his second national title in five seasons.

And ol' Roy must have felt on top of the world. Until this season hit.

In the lead-up to the season, life seemed pretty close to perfect in town. Sure, there were the expected departures of the Heels' top four players. But there still remained a strong mix of experience and talent. Enough so that national pundits called the Heels a top-five team nationally and those in ACC country put them right up on top of the conference with Duke.

Oh, and Williams also got a commitment from the Class of 2010's top player (and scholar) Harrison Barnes. Utopia? Yes, it seemed...

Meanwhile, in Storrs, Conn., no one expected the Huskies to earn a repeat trip to the Final Four after the departures of their top two players — including big man Hasheem Thabeet as the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. However, plenty of talent and experience remained, which garnered the Huskies a spot in the top 20 of most college hoops writers and allowed for pretty decent expectations, especially with the Big East supposed to have a down year.

Well, as the kids text these days, "Haha."

North Carolina is squarely on the bubble ... to make the NIT. (OK, the Heels are probably in good shape, at 14-11 and 3-7 in the ACC, to qualify for the tournament no one cares about; but that's the point. They're irrelevant nationally, except as the answer to this question: Which team has had the most inexplicably disappointing season). Connecticut, meanwhile, is in a similar position at 14-11 and 4-8 in the Big East.

So what's happened? What's gone wrong? I'm not going to delve into X's and O's since I haven't been around either team, haven't talked to players, haven't watched film during lonely nights on my couch (instead, I've spent such lonely nights catching up on the "Jersey Shore" phenomenon, but that's besides the point).

What this speaks to, more than anything, is that winning is never guaranteed, can never be taken for granted. A lot of the time, I think, casual observers, fans, broadcasters — heck, anybody, really — takes this approach. Because they're the Tar Heels and are led by Roy Williams and a host of All-Americans, we expect W's. And when there's a surprising loss to College of Charleston, we all know that Roy will push his players through a grueling practice that will result in inspired performances in the following games.

That's the way things go, right? The more talented teams, the teams with the HOF coaches, the teams with 100 years of glorious history win a lot of games. Some years aren't as great as others, but relatively. Maybe 23 wins and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament instead of a national title. You know, disappointing ... but wait until next year.

Well, that's been far from the case in Chapel Hill and Storrs this season. Williams has admitted to not being able to get a handle on how to, well, handle his team, on which buttons to push to get the most out of his players. The Heels absolutely have Sweet 16 talent, not to mention experience, but they haven't shown enough toughness late in games, they've resembled an unconfident bunch of players rather than players who were on a national-title squad a year ago.

At Connecticut, it's been easier to put the Huskies' struggles into tangible matter. They can't shoot 3-pointers, so opposing teams have bunched in their defenses. Add to that the health problems that kept HOFer Jim Calhoun off the sideline for a few weeks, and it's not a huge surprise — but still one — that they've struggled so much. 

But what's transpired at North Carolina is truly amazing and again a testament to the Chris Berman phrase, "That's why they play the game!"

If anything, this season has taught us that only a couple numbers matter: Yep, you guessed it — the points on the scoreboard for your team and your opponent. Next year, the Heels will again be graced with high expectations. Barnes and a cadre of other high-profile recruits will join the Heels' talented squad. 

But unless they learn how to win, don't pen-in a huge improvement in wins (as hard as that would be to comprehend). The same can be said of Connecticut and Louisville. The Cardinals showed Sunday what they're capable of, as they played a smart, tough game to depart the Dome with a monumental upset of the third-ranked Orange. But is it a sign of things to come or simply an aberration?

Only time will tell, but for now this season stands as one of the most confounding in recent memory — and a lesson to all of us that you can't just patch together a good team with a group of talented kids and a great coach.

Winning each season takes a lot of work and a strong belief in one another. For three powerhouses of a year ago, and many other years, that has not been the case since Midnight Madness.

1 comment:

J-bo said...

I am not really as surprised as everyone else is about UNC's current season. Our 2005-06 season was an aberration: our freshman all found their stride immediately and we had the very athletic David Noel remaining to lead. While we lost a comparable amount of talent in this current season, our remaining seniors (Thompson, Ginyard) have neither raw athletic talent nor consistency in their play, and our freshmen are expectantly confused and inconsistent in their play. The only bright spot of late has been to see Henson's rapid development at the 4 position, and I am left wondering if we could have recovered enough for a NCAA if Davis hadn't gotten injured.