Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Game Recap: UNC vs. William and Mary

Let me say this first: Carmichael rocked. The smaller, historic arena was sold out and the crowd came to cheer. It was hot, loud, and filled with energy. Wearing the throwback uniforms, and playing potentially the last game of the season, UNC played hard. The crowd, the whole crowd stood most of the times. At various points in the game, I would see students go down to the Rams Club section where the older, richer, more staid, and frankly disinterested alumni sit and basically deliver short sermons, demanding that they too stand. And they did. It was truly remarkable and I hope that UNC investigates the possibility of playing more games there in the future. The fans, players, and Roy himself all just absolutely loved it.

Now, that said, let me slip in this: The Dean Dome is mostly perfect for UNC. The more students, alumni, and fans that can attend UNC games in person, the better. The Dean Dome is, in some very basic sense, about equality and giving everyone a shot to see the game. I really like, for the sake of the comprehensive polar images, that UNC plays in the Dean Dome and Duke plays in Cameroon Indoor. One is large, open, affordable, and welcomes all. The students get their tickets by open and fair lottery, and most students, in their time, get to come and participate in Carolina basketball. At Duke, tickets are limited, ridiculously expensive, and the right to buy them directly from the university is basically done exclusively through a complex system of monetary patronage where you buy your rights to even think about buying tickets (I know the Rams Club exists at UNC, but it has nowhere near the prominence of the Iron Dukes system). The students basically get tickets through displays of who has the most resources: either time or money. Many Duke students won't get to go to a game through the normal ticket distribution process. So, as much as I liked Carmichael, a large venue suits Carolina. It just feels right. Now, they still need to let more students closer to the court at the Smith Center, but that's another issue.

Now, let's talk about the game.

William and Mary is a smart team. They shot 43 three-pointers (making 37.2% of them) over the course of the game, out of 62 total shots. I believe all but two more of the shots were taken directly at the rim. No mid-range floaters, no tough penetration, just pure high-efficiency looks. This is an unconventional strategy, but it's smart as hell and you'd like it if more teams had the guts to play this way. Despite some lock-down moments in the first half and one very nice stretch at the end of the game, Carolina was mostly unable to stop their offense from executing. Fortunately, they had the same problem.

North Carolina's offense looked right for the first time in some time. Efficient, balanced scoring from almost everyone on the team. When I look at a box score, one of my favorite things to do is check total points divided by field goal attempts, which can provide a quick and dirty way to check on the offensive efficiency of a particular player. It's a nice little cheat because it gives some weight to good shooting, getting to the line and hitting threes. What you look for when you make this comparison is for the player in question to score significantly more points than they take shots. This is a long way of saying, when I looked at the box score, I was delighted. Our team is normally terribly inefficient on offense, getting to the line at a good clip, but not really shooting that well from there or anywhere else and not taking enough threes. It was a delight to see that Deon had 20 points on 13 shots, that Zeller had 13 points on six shots, while Drew, Henson, and Strickland also posted fairly efficient games. Even Marcus and Will, who were, admittedly off offensively weren't really terrible offensively, and didn't shoot us out of the game, and, at this point, that's all I ask.

The key to our efficiency was what it always has been: getting to the line. In an effort to play tough and make up for the lack of size, William and Mary fouled far more than you might expect from a team that normally makes a habit of not fouling. They were trying to keep our big men off their spots and to hassle our guards on the perimeter, and the refs seemed content to let this style of play go on without too many whistles until UNC started to force the issue by taking the ball right at the rim. William and Mary uncharacteristically fouled and we did our best to take advantage.

As was expected, we took serious advantage of our size in the post, and as I noted earlier Deon and Tyler basically rampaged in the paint, scoring at will. While the overall rebound totals might indicate only a slight advantage for UNC, we mostly owned the glass when it counted. Single-handedly, Henson had six offensive rebounds, compared to seven offensive rebounds for the entirety of William and Mary. Henson, for the record, did have a field day: ten rebounds, nine points, two blocks, an assist and a steal in only 23 minutes, and the way Deon and Tyler were playing it's hard to blame Roy for not playing him more.

Tyler Zeller, for one night, almost made me forget how much I miss Ed Davis. He was simply stellar on offense and defense making big plays that kept the crowd fired up. Not once, but twice, he stole the ball on the perimeter and took off down the court dribbling as best as he could. It was awkward, but you can't help but love that hustle from a seven footer. Those steals also are emblematic of another one of the keys for this game: winning the turnover battle.

All season, we have been really bad at getting steals. It's sad, but true. This game, against a team that rarely ever turns the ball over, Marcus Ginyard alone got five steals, and, in total, William and Mary turned the ball over 17 times. UNC won the turnover battle. I'm as stunned as you are. It's amazing how that will put you in a good position to win ball games. Wait, no, that's not amazing; that's really obvious. Whatever, I'm going to enjoy it for this one game.

Let's talk about Larry and Dexter. Neither shot well from the field, but both made a positive impact on the team. They both played tough defense, shadowing the ever-screening guards of William and Mary and closing out on shooters quickly (Dex even got the rare block of a three-pointer and you are out of your mind if you think this didn't cause Carolina fans to lost its collective shit). Drew was the classic floor general in this one, utilizing the power of his deadly pull-up three in transition and even putting the ball on the deck and driving (finally!). As for Dex, man, this is one of the few times all season I have seen a player on our team make an earnest effort to take over the game. In the last few minutes, Dex was driving with lightning speed and keeping William and Mary on their heels. He got to the line with regularity and iced the game by hitting his shots with cool aplomb, which was a refreshing change from what Carolina fans have seen at the line all season. It was more than that though. Dex sparked the rest of the team, and somehow, his brand of kamikaze defense based on quick feet and rapid close-outs was somehow super effective against William and Mary. I may be wrong about this, but he seemed like the best defender on the team at times. When I was watching the whole game I couldn't help but think, "I bet his plus/minus is really high," and sure enough, he led the team with a whopping +21. The best is yet to come with Dexter Strickland.

I loved this game. The whole team played with a lot of heart and played well. Deon was diving on the floor, scoring at will, and seemingly loving this game more than anything I've ever seen him play. Throughout the game he would encourage the fans and they would respond wildly. I can't help but love his post-game comments:

"I have played a lot of game in this North Carolina jersey, including a couple Final Fours, but being out there on that floor tonight with those fans and all the history in Carmichael, is something that I will always remember... It was what college basketball is all about, enjoying wins with the kids you get to go to class with every day. I really enjoyed playing in this place tonight."

If this is what playing in the NIT means, then let the NIT roll on.

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