Friday, November 16, 2007

Davidson-North Carolina: That Good or That Bad?
by Ricky Dimon
Associate Editor,
November 15th, 2007

The #1-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels struggled mightily with the Davidson Wildcats on Wednesday night in Charlotte’s Bobcats Arena. After forty minutes of back-and-forth scoreboard action in what was a borderline NCAA Tournament-type atmosphere, the Heels prevailed 72-68.

One various message boards and talk shows today the nail-biter begged the question—among many others—is Davidson that good or is North Carolina that bad?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. There is absolutely no shame whatsoever in any kind of win over these Davidson Wildcats, whether the margin of victory is one point or fifty points. The ‘Cats are the two-time defending champion of the Southern Conference and they’ve given Ohio State and Maryland all each team could handle in the first round of the past two Big Dances, respectively. And this year, Davidson is better than ever. The Wildcats return all five starters and their top ten scorers from last season’s squad. Most importantly, they still have Stephen Curry, who slipped under the radars of BCS schools and wound up at tiny Davidson, much to the delight of coach Bob McKillop and to the chagrin of the bigger-school coaches who passed him up. Curry, son of former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry, averaged 21.5 points per game in his 2006-2007 freshman campaign, second to only Kevin Durant among first-year players. He’s bigger and better this season and Curry will be a household name—if it isn’t already—sooner rather than later.

So let’s understand this: North Carolina just beat a quality opponent and technically it came on the road (Davidson normally plays its home games in the friendly confines of Belk Arena, but the Wildcats take on bigger schools like UNC and Duke—on December 1—in Charlotte).

That said, it’s no secret that North Carolina did not play great basketball on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels looked lost out of the gates and spent the first 12 minutes of the game turning the ball over, fouling excessively, and forking up ill-advised shots. “We were a little shaky early – acted like it was the first basketball game we’d ever played,” said coach Roy Williams.

Carolina, however, deserves credit for bouncing back in style. The Heels finished the first half on a 12-3 run and closed out the game by turning a 61-59 deficit with just over five minutes remaining into an insurmountable 70-65 inside the final sixty seconds. To say they did not play consistent basketball would be an understatement, but as great teams always do, the Tar Heels found a way to get the job done in the clutch.

Keep in mind that point guard Ty Lawson picked up three early fouls and played just 21 minutes, so Carolina came through for the ‘W’ despite spending half the night without its floor general, one of the quickest players in college basketball. The Heels also did it despite Tyler Hansbrough, who dealt with foul trouble of his own late in the second half, attempting just six shots from the floor. You can bet that won’t happen again this season.

On the bright side, sophomore guard Wayne Ellington stepped up in a major way. He poured in 20 points and while Davidson missed plenty of big shots down the stretch, Ellington bottomed his crunch-time jumpers.

Backup point guard Bobby Frasor gave the Heels valuable minutes off the bench with Lawson plagued by foul trouble. Juniors Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard also stepped up in the same way they always seem to step up in, with Green hitting some timely tree-pointers and Ginyard constantly hounding the opponent’s best player. Yes Curry got in his 24 points and carved up the UNC defense on more than one occasion, but he was held to just 8-of-22 shooting (including 2-for-12 on three-pointers) and Ginyard contained him about as well as anyone will contain him this entire season.

So is North Carolina that bad? The mere question is preposterous. Did the Tar Heels play well? Not so much. Did they pull out an impressive season-opening victory? Absolutely.

Now that brings us to the question: is Davidson that good?

Well, it depends what you mean by that good. Are the Wildcats as talented as the top-ranked Heels, with whom they just played forty minutes of smarter, better basketball? Surely not. Are they good enough such that playing the very best teams in the nation as even as even can get should not be considered a fluke? Well, we will find out soon since Davidson still has Duke, N.C. State, and UCLA on the schedule prior to the near, but by all indications the answer to that is a resounding ‘yes.’

We’re talking about a team that lost nothing from a season in which it dominated the Southern Conference to the tune of a 17-1 record (20-1 if you count the SoCon tournament). We’re talking about a team that had an eight-point lead on Maryland in the second half of last year’s NCAA Tournament showdown before fading down the stretch.

We’re not talking about flukes. McKillop has his guys playing extremely difficult non-conference schedules year in and year out, and with the added bonus of having played post-season games against Ohio State and Maryland the past two years (not to mention a deep NIT run three years ago) in addition to the tough regular season slates, these Wildcats have long since graduated from the days of just being glad to be on the same court as the bigger boys.

No, as the Blue Devils, Wolfpack, and Bruins will soon find out, this team is legit. In addition to Curry, the Wildcats boast one of the most underrated point guards in the nation in Jason Richards. The senior exploded onto the scene last season after a mass departure of seven seniors following Davidson’s ’06-’07 SoCon-winning season. Richards dished out 7.3 assists per game last year and his turnover ratio, which did not exceed 2-to-1 in either of his first two seasons, soared to 2.35-to-1. He shot 81 percent from the line and 38 percent from beyond the arc. Just two games into this young season, Richards is averaging 13 points, 9 assists, and he is 5-for-10 from downtown.

Down low the ‘Cats start seniors Thomas Sander and Boris Meno. Sander, as tough as they come, averaged 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds last season. He wasn’t much of an offensive factor against North Carolina, but he did a great job of battling Hansbrough underneath and, as usual, played flawless defense. Meno played with an injured shoulder on Wednesday, but when healthy, his athleticism makes for a lethal weapon on the basketball court. He averages 8.2 rebounds per game last year and this season Meno already has 23 boards through two games despite playing a total of just 43 minutes. Meno averaged a block and a steal per game in ’06-’07 and he had two blocks in each of this season’s first two contests.

Put those two forces alongside defensive stopper Max Paulhus Gosselin and you’ve got yourself a unit that’s tough to do much against. North Carolina committed 19 turnovers, wilted under countless double teams, and only got going when Davidson briefly switched into zone. Southern Conference opposition won’t have much fun working against the Wildcats, to say the least.

Sure Davidson couldn’t quite come up with as many plays as North Carolina did down the stretch, but that wasn’t for a lack of depth. The ‘Cats go nine deep and received invaluable contributions from junior Andrew Lovedale and redshirt sophomore Steven Rossiter. Sophomore forward Will Archambault missed a few easy ones against the ‘Heels, but he can dial it up from long range and his ability to drive and finish forces defenses to give him slack around the arc. Fellow sophomore Bryant Barr, a 6-4 guard, did not get much playing time against UNC but he can also get hot in a hurry from long range. Barr should be much more of a contributor as the Wildcats delve into conference play.

Offense, defense, guard play, low post presences, three-point shooting, veteran leadership, coaching, NCAA Tournament experience—the Davidson Wildcats have it all.

Are they as good as North Carolina? No.

Are they “that good,” as good as what the nation saw on Wednesday? Once the shots start falling, they’re even better.

North Carolina and Davidson played a game that easily could have been mistaken for an NCAA Tournament thriller had it been aired on CBS rather than ESPN. What’s scary is that the two teams did so without playing close to their best basketball. What’s really scary is that there is a lot—and I mean a lot—of room for improvement for both the Tar Heels and the Wildcats.

There are plenty of questions being asked about Wednesday’s game, but there should be no questions about where these two teams will be come March 2008. You can go ahead and count on Davidson being a major player in the NCAA Tournament through at least the first weekend, and North Carolina making noise through all three tournament weekends. Cats’ and Heels’ fans, enjoy the ride!

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