It is amazing where this team is now compared to two weeks ago. Following the Duke game most fans were content to fold the tent and bring this incredibly disappointing season to an end. While the first round loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament did show some signs of life we expected(and half hoped) the NIT Selection Committee would leave the Heels out thus shifting the focus to next season. A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. The NIT, in all their financial wisdom, gave UNC a slot and a home game. Said home game would be played in Carmichael due to renovations at the Dean Dome and all of sudden this team, long left for dead, had new life. The win in Carmichael was like a shock to the quivering Tar Heel heart by the defibrillator. V-tach turned into sinus rhythm. Oxygen levels rose and the patient woke up. Following two tough road games which required toughness, composure and breaks that had gone against the Heels all season reversing course, UNC finds itself heading to New York for the NIT Final Four. It is ideal? Of course not. The expectation for UNC is to always be in the NCAA Tournament. However, with a season where so much has gone wrong, having something go right is like an oasis in the desert.
During the past three games, we still see some of the problems that have plagued this team since November. Those issues such poor shooting and porous perimeter defense need an offseason of work and infusion of new talent to fix. There are signs of improvement in some critical areas.
During the first 32 games of the season UNC averaged 15.4 turnovers per game. During the three NIT games that number is down to 12.4. More importantly, in the last two games the turnovers in the 2nd half have been lower.
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In the games vs MSU and UAB, the Heels were very loose with the basketball in the first half. Following halftime they did a better job taking care of the basketball which was a huge part of winning both those games. On an individual level, Larry Drew in particular is seemingly making better decisions though not immune to the illogical ones just yet. Against UAB, Drew had three turnovers but none in the 2nd half. In the NIT Drew's A/TO ratio is 2.0 up from 1.87 in the previous 32 games. Small improvement? Yes, but even where the eyeball test is concerned with Drew, he looks like he has a better grasp of running the offense in general.
In the past three games and particularly late in the game vs UAB, the Heels run plays and get baskets. Multiple times the Heels executed and got a very good shot. I think this stems from the aforementioned point of Drew having a better grasp of running the offense. It also stems from John Henson being completely comfortable at the four. Some of it is owed to UNC outmatching opponents in terms of size but that was not really the case vs Mississippi St. The fact Drew has the tape of his fingers has improved his shooting and the Heels have gotten nice contributions in spots from Dexter Strickland and Tyler Zeller. And getting back to the eyeball test, the spacing has been better and the general flow of the halfcourt sets look crisper than they have in a while.
Having Fun and Closing the Deal
Winning does wonders for confidence and confidence does wonders for how a team plays. And yes it is a chicken and egg sort of thing but sometimes if you can just clear the mechanism, all of sudden things start coming together. Combine that with getting everyone mostly healthy, players being comfortable with where they are on the court and the sense they are finally playing with a sense of urgency, the result is winning basketball. This team is also having fun which I think stems from John Henson. For most of the season Henson looked lost playing at the three. Since moving to the four Henson has contributed in a huge way. That has meant more minutes, more big plays from him and more of his exuberance on the court.
Aside from having fun, this team has learned how to win games which is something all teams have to figure out. The eventual 2009 national champions went through some very painful games learning how to win going back to close losses in 2007, the game vs Georgetown and a host of others. In 2008 they finished the job twice vs Clemson in OT, staging rallies both times. Against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament the Heels stepped up to break a tied game late. In 2009 you have the win at FSU, Ty Lawson taking over at Duke and against LSU. What happened in the last two seasons was a result of painful lessons rendered in 2007. The same could be said for this team. This team has lost some games they could have won had they been able to execute consistently down the stretch or gotten a break. In the NIT both have happened. While you have no control over the latter, if you do the former with a high success rate the breaks you don't get seem less daunting. During the NIT, not only has this team put themselves in a position to win but made the necessary plays to win. That will pay huge dividends down the road.
Setting the Stage
Roy Williams can talk about focusing on this season and not shorting Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson all he wants, everyone knows this season is not the actually harvest. Yes, there are games to win and a championship to bring home but where all of this really matters most is developing returning players for next season. Seeing John Henson be the #1 option on offense and deliver is extremely important because I suspect that he will be that player next season. Having Larry Drew run the offense, hit a game winner and get a handle on the offense late in games says a lot about his maturity as a player. Simply giving Tyler Zeller, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald big minutes in games that are do or die means affording them experience they would not be getting had UNC's season ended three games ago. Yes, winning the NIT is important because that is the immediate goal but the ultimate goal is getting the returning players ready to redeem what this season has mostly been come next season.
While I am not quite ready to declare this season salvaged, I do think we will walk away from it with a better taste in our mouth than had it ended after the Georgia Tech game. Watching UNC basketball is fun again and the product on the court, while struggling to meet the high expectations, is looking closer to what we hope than it has at any point since Michigan St. was in Chapel Hill. Anything from this point is gravy but the charge remains: Just win baby!