Friedlander: Tar Heels finally look like the team we thought they would be
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There’s a video that’s played on the big screens at the Smith Center before every North Carolina basketball team. It features Tar Heels from the past reciting some of the program’s impressive list of accomplishments over the years.
Seventeen ACC tournament titles.
Eighteen Final Fours.
Nine Naismith Hall of Famers.
Six national championships.
The reel ends with a simple phrase, punctuated by Michael Jordan and the late Dean Smith.
This is Carolina basketball.
For most of this season, especially the most recent 4 games before Saturday, the brand of basketball played by coach Hubert Davis’ team have fallen well short of the high standard normally associated with the Tar Heels.
They haven’t shared the ball on offense. They’ve been outrebounded multiple times and they’ve struggled on defense, especially in the paint. The uncharacteristic problems contributed greatly to a 4-game losing streak that sent UNC plummeting out of the national rankings after starting the season atop the polls.
The slump made for some dramatic headlines and plenty of banter on the talk-radio circuit.
But it’s still a long way until March. And already, the Tar Heels have begun to show some signs of being the team everyone thought they could be.
The spark of urgency began to flicker during the final 8 minutes of last Sunday’s loss at Virginia Tech, when they trimmed a season-high, 18-point deficit to 3 before running out of gas.
It became even more pronounced Saturday.
Playing at home for the first time in 20 days, after an intense week of practice in which Davis spent considerable time reminding his players who they are and how they’re supposed to play, UNC responded with its best, most complete game of the still-young season.
“It was a team effort game,” junior guard RJ Davis said of the 75-59 rout of Georgia Tech, a game in which he recorded a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double. “We executed the game plan and we played Carolina basketball.”
The Tar Heels’ plus-21 rebounding margin (43-22) was their best this season. So was their 15 assists on 27 made field goals, a huge improvement over a ratio that ranked 349th nationally coming into the game.
Georgia Tech’s 22 points in the paint were the fewest UNC has allowed since its opener against UNC Wilmington and the Tar Heels’ 17 fast-break points were as many as they’d scored in their past 2 games – losses at Indiana and Virginia Tech – combined.
As UNC’s long-time publicist Steve Kirschner read off each stat at the end of Davis’ postgame press conference Saturday, the 2nd-year coach smiled, raised a fist in the air and replied: “We’re trying!”
Davis obviously was pleased that his week of tough love, when he stressed the need for “trust” on defense and returning to an inside-out style on offense, had produced its desired results.
But on-the-court changes, along with the return of a healthy Armando Bacot in the middle, weren’t the only things different about the Tar Heels on Saturday.
For the 1st time in their 10 games, they no longer were the team that came within 20 minutes of winning the national title last April and the preseason favorite to win it all this season with 4 returning starters.
The swagger and sense of entitlement were gone, replaced by the humbling realization that they’re just another team trying to figure things out and improve as they approach the meat of the conference schedule.
In the words of their coach, they finally cut the cord from their success last March and April and began living in the present.
“You have to put previous years in their proper place in order to move forward,” Davis said. “It’s been hard from the outside noise to cut the cord since last year. And I feel like today was a step forward.
“I think it will always be a battle throughout the entire year. But my hope is we’ll continue to get better and focus on this year’s team and see how good we can become.”
Emphasizing the point that these Tar Heels still are very much a work in progress was the 2-plus minute cameo turned in by Jalen Washington on Saturday. The 6-foot-10 freshman missed his senior year of high school and the 1st month of this season while recovering from 2 ACL surgeries.
Seeing his 1st college action, he entered to a standing ovation from the home crowd, then he showed his potential by scoring on a strong post move in the lane.
As encouraging as his and his team’s performances were, that should be tempered by the fact that everything came against a team picked to finish last in the ACC’s preseason poll. The next game against The Citadel figures to be even less of a test.
Still, you have to start somewhere.
It’s going to take at least until next weekend when UNC will take on Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, followed closely by another neutral-site test against Michigan in Charlotte, to learn whether the light switch really has been flipped.
Or if the return to Carolina basketball was just a flicker of an image, like of some old players and coaches on the Smith Center video board.