Fountain of youth
Baby Tar Heels have the talent to win the national title
Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 1:41PM; Updated: Tuesday February 20, 2007 2:58PM
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CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- The clock was down to 9:26, Boston College guard Tyrese Rice had just cut North Carolina's lead to one on a driving layup and the sold-out Conte Forum was about to explode. There were barely enough seconds, however, to write down Rice's name on the score sheet before Tar Heels' jitterbug Ty Lawson took the inbounds pass, raced down the floor and put the Heels back up three with a lay-up of his own. On the next possession, UNC's Brandan Wright leapt through the air to block Eagles' star Jared Dudley's attempted lay-up, then hurried back downcourt to hit a turnaround jump shot.
North Carolina by five. Time out Boston College. Crisis averted.
In this, the so-called Year of the Freshman, no team in the country has a better set than the fifth-ranked Tar Heels. Rarely has a team so young -- a starting lineup with three freshmen and a sophomore, a 12-man rotation, of which just three are upperclassmen -- merited such serious consideration as a national-title contender.
Yes, Syracuse won it all in 2003 with newbies Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, but the Orangemen were a four seed that next-to-no one saw coming. Michigan's Fab Five certainly generated hype prior to the tournament but their 20-8 regular-season record (and No. 6 seed) did not exactly prophesies a run to the title game.
This year's Tar Heels were feted with national-title expectations before 60 percent of their starting lineup played their first college game. They've drawn comparisons to coach Roy Williams' 2005 title team in terms of the sheer amount of talent, but that squad started three juniors and two seniors.
My initial instinct is to proclaim no team this young could possibly win six straight games in March. But then you watch them go into Boston College and show all the composure of a veteran team with the game -- and first place in the ACC -- on the line. And you look at their season as a whole, which also includes wins at Duke, Arizona and Clemson. "We've been a pretty doggone good team on the road," said Williams.
If you can win on the road, you can win in the tournament.
The Tar Heels have so much overall talent, it's scary. While sophomore Tyler Hansbrough is the star and senior Reyshawn Terry the leader, it's a freshman, Lawson, who keys the whole thing. His ability to get the ball upcourt in a matter of nano-seconds allows UNC to attack at an even faster pace than the '05 team, which is saying something. "Ty is as fast as Raymond [Felton] was when he was here," said Terry. "He knows what Coach Williams expects and is able to stay up to the standards.''
Meanwhile, the silky-smooth Wright is a matchup nightmare for most opponents, a 6-9 power forward who can fly to the basket but also hit the mid-range jumper. A third freshman, Wayne Ellington, is a three-point specialist who hits 38 percent from beyond the arc (Terry shoots less from outside but actually hits 46 percent of his threes) and a fourth, Deon Thompson, provides a nice spark off the bench. Watching them, it's easy to forget they're freshmen.
"We have so much experience now, playing 30 minutes a night," said Lawson. "I think we're in between freshman and sophomores."
Their inexperience still shows, however, in the form of the Heels' sometimes maddening inconsistency. Four nights before posting the big win in Boston, UNC inexplicably fell on its home floor to Virginia Tech, the Heels' second loss this season to the Hokies. They also suffered an embarrassing loss at N.C. State on Feb. 3. While they lead the nation in margin-of-victory, often posting scores such as 105-64 (over Miami) and 104-67 (over Wake Forest), their record in games decided by eight points or less stands at just 2-4.
The good news is, after each of their four losses, the Tar Heels have rebounded by beating a ranked opponent away from home. The bad news is, in March, you don't get a chance to rebound.
"It's something tough to explain to a person until you've done it," said Hansbrough, who, as a freshman last season, suffered the indignity of a second-round upset by George Mason. "Until you've lost, you don't know what that feeling's like, you don't understand how quickly it ends. There's nothing I can say to [the freshmen], they just have to be ready."
There's no question the Baby Heels are good enough to cut down the nets. Whether they're ready remains to be seen.
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