Gap between UNC, UA has little to do with star power
Posted: Saturday January 27, 2007 8:01PM; Updated: Saturday January 27, 2007 9:23PM
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona and North Carolina should be about even. Both rosters are loaded with embarrassing amounts of NBA talent. Together the two teams are a collection of the college game's elite freshmen and sophomores.
The Wildcats have a Hall of Fame coach; the Tar Heels have a future Hall-of Famer. They both started the season in the top 10. They're two of the highest-powered offenses in the nation. If the likes of Williams, Budinger, Radenovic, Shakur and McClellan were taking on Hansbrough, Wright, Ellington, Lawson and Terry in a pickup game, much less a regular-season tilt, it would be highly competitive, must-see TV, right?
So here we are at a CBS game on a Saturday afternoon in late January, No. 4 vs. No. 17 in front of a packed house of 14,596 at the McKale Center. Arizona should have a sizable advantage, seeing that UNC's home is 2,000 miles away and the game started at 11 a.m. MT.
It's the 7:59 mark of the second half, and the Tar Heels' best freshman (and the likely third pick in the next NBA Draft), Brandan Wright, is wearing a suit; he and teammate Marcus Ginyard have the stomach flu and were late scratches from the lineup. Double and triple advantage, Arizona.
Yet, I'm being handed an ominous sheet by the U of A's media relations staff, delivered fresh from the Xerox machine to press row. The heading: "Worst McKale Center Losses Under Lute Olson." The worst in his 24-year career in Tucson, according to the sheet, was a 12-point loss to Tennessee in December 1983.
Then I pan over the deflated crowd, where the red-painted students who were going wild an hour ago are now crossing their arms and grimacing in a pose similar to the one Olson is doing on the sideline, and look up to the scoreboard and see UNC 69, Arizona 46 -- already well on its way to becoming the new, all-time worst of 92-64.
Two questions come to mind: What the hell happened? And how can UNC and Arizona be so far apart?
"There's nothing to say other than that North Carolina was great and we were awful," said Olson, whose Wildcats were 1-of-23 from 3-point land and committed 20 turnovers to UNC's 12. "It's too bad because the stage was set for everyone to really enjoy a great basketball game. And this was not a great basketball game. It was a great team playing against somebody that looked like it was trying to do everything wrong."
The difference between Carolina and Arizona goes beyond Saturday's deep-freeze-and-turnover festival. While both lineups are stacked, the two teams diverge in the departments of depth, defense and effective use of speed. Those are the reasons why the Heels are only beginning to hit their stride -- and are looking like legit national title contenders -- while Arizona looks as if it's hitting a wall.
I walked with UNC star Tyler Hansbrough to the team bus afterward; he had struggled mightily, going the entire first half and then five minutes of the second before scoring his first field goal, but seemed excited at what had happened around him. Namely, that playing without three of their top nine players -- Wright, Ginyard and the injured Bobby Frasor -- the Heels still managed to have six guys in double-figures, and received career highs in points from freshmen Tywon Lawson (18), Deon Thompson (14) and Alex Stepheson (10).
"That was such a pickup for us, with Brandan gone," Hansbrough said. "It just says something about our depth; when anyone misses a game, we have people who can come in and fill their spots."