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December 24, 2006

Tis the season to be patient

The very meaning of being a sports fan or media member is to coach from the sofa or press row, second guess the team and scream 'Why, oh why?' when the team falls short of perfection or the point of progress one deems appropriate for the moment.

Few of us mean anything malicious by it. We simply live in a world of instant gratification, one energized by a flame fueled with a country-wide bellows called the Internet, mainstream media and one's own vicarious desire to win.

The obsession with recruiting and first-year players has skewed our understanding that all but the most unique freshmen still share many of the same traits with their predecessors of 10, 15, 25 or 30 years ago - playing organized ball at the collegiate level brings new experiences every night that could not be simulated in practice, even for club-team trained, savvy players of the modern era.

Our minds understand these young men are freshmen, but our eyes grow blind to their humanity because of the hype of recruiting rankings and ridiculous hyperbole Internet analysts fill our minds with before these kids ever step foot on campus.

A wise assistant football coach once told me that a big part of the staff's job with a new class is to de-recruit the players their first year on campus. In other words, bring these kids back to earth by getting them to understand what is real and how much of the hype surrounding their recruitment was plain old B.S.

Recently, I saw this coach and told him how much he had taught me through the years because I know many of these coaches figure sports writers are arrogant and do not really listen. He responded by telling me he saw some recruiting show on television recently with the analysts comparing a high-school safety to Ronnie Lott, a former Southern Cal and San Francisco 49ers great at safety.

"Ronnie Lott was a Hall of Famer," the coach said, shaking his head in amazement, "a Hall of Famer."

Former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith always put it best: "[Fill in the name] is a great prospect," heavily emphasizing the word prospect because until a player had committed himself to the work required to develop and show the ability to perform before big crowds and television cameras, he remained just that - a prospect.

If you wish to enjoy this year's Tar Heel basketball team, look past the competition on the schedule, the names on the opponents' jerseys and watch the details of how these freshmen and sophomore prospects Roy Williams has collected develop and execute his teachings.

Former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano used to say basketball is an easy game; it's just difficult to execute properly.

Williams' teachings are not particularly easy, nor are playing his relentless running game or the strategy of team defense. Nonetheless, it is not college-level chemistry or high-level mathematics, either, especially for the caliber of player recruited by Williams.

I will say this once again (and do not promise not to repeat again and possibly again after that): The true beauty of watching the 2006-07 UNC basketball team is observing the details that comprise its development and how Williams adjusts, teaches and deals with the human elements of the teen-agers who wear the uniforms and perform daily, whether they are doing it in practice or in games.

Right now, the big complaint among many fans is "when are we going to play somebody good again?"

Well, I suggest you ask the Carolina players and coaches if they played "someone good" on Friday against a St. Louis team in a true road game. The Tar Heels entered that game 9-1, while its opponent was at home with a 9-2 record. Carolina had a bunch of freshmen playing in their first true road game of their careers and a sophomore in Tyler Hansbrough, who performed under the pressure of playing his "homecoming game," with better than 10 percent of the population of his hometown on hand watching.

"It was kind of tough," UNC point guard Tywon Lawson said, "because this was my first college game on the road. This game's going to help me a lot throughout the season."

By the time it ended, Williams was smiling because the Tar Heels had not only won, they had done so by continuing their progress on team defense that had begun to show in dramatic fashion a couple of games back.

The Tar Heels are starting to perform in unison on defense and use their length, quickness and overall athletic ability to make good shots difficult for opponents to locate.

"We handled [the game] well," senior Reyshawn Terry said. "We came away with the win. It takes a lot for young guys of their caliber to come in play in front of a big crowd and hostile environment. We know now they can get the job done [in a true road game]."

That is because the Tar Heels are learning the secret behind it.

"We played great defensively," freshman Brandan Wright said. "The shots just weren't falling [in the first half]. That's all it was. Everybody came in the locker room [at halftime] smiling because we knew the shots just weren't falling. When we came out in the second half, we hit like four or five baskets in a row. The defense was there all night."

For anyone who watched Carolina or Kansas closely all these years, Wright described the so-called secret to so much of those teams' successes - take the best possible statistically sound shot on offense, limit an opponent's ability to run its offense and get the shots the Jayhawks or Tar Heels would prefer, and on defense, rebound the misses on the balls that cannot be turned over before a shot is taken.

There are subtleties to all of these parts, but this is the formula in essence. This mixture is starting to bubble and congeal into a form Williams is seeking to create for this team.

So enjoy the rest of this basketball season. In blowouts, relish the entertaining, athletic play of one of the nation's finest, most gifted teams as it learns how to perform under the best recruiter and coach in America.

If one takes this approach to the next few months, this stretch run in 2007 should be one heck of a ride.



 

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