How many freshmen does it take to bring a legendary college basketball program back from the brink of insignificance?
If you ask the North Carolina Tar Heel hopeful, the answer is three.
Now a year removed from a dreadful campaign that many within the Carolina community would love to forget, a trio of blue chip freshmen has arrived in Chapel Hill ready to bring honor and pride back to Tobacco Road.
Leading their team to a 5-1 record through the first 16 days of play, freshmen guards Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton and center Sean May have had an immediate impact on the court. All three were McDonald’s High School All-Americans, and after an aggressive and tireless recruiting process, head coach Matt Doherty convinced each one to suit up in Carolina blue.
Expectations ran high for the widely hyped newcomers, yet it was still not enough for UNC to garner any preseason respect. Barely ranked in the top 50 by many polls, Carolina was picked to finish second to last in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Just three weeks into the young season, UNC is already more than half way to last year’s win total of eight thanks in large part to the play of its freshmen.
Along with sophomore starters Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel, the new Tar Heels are reaping the benefits of a summer filled with hard-nosed pickup games and the ever-popular “voluntary” team workouts.
On opening night at the Dean Dome, Doherty and his debutantes knew they had to make a statement to the college basketball world that the “Boys in Blue” were once again a major force. They did just that in the first round of the preseason NIT tournament, running up a huge first half lead over Penn State and eventually winning by 30.
Two days later the Tar Heels faced their first true gut check, as they trailed Rutgers for most of their second round game. Down by 11 with seven minutes to go, McCants took over. Sparking the Carolina defense and hitting big shots down the stretch, the young phenom scored eight of his 18 points in the final 6:25. The Tar Heels ended the game on a 23-8 run, hanging on for the win and a trip to New York to face an experienced Kansas team ranked second in the nation.
It would have been easy, even expected, for UNC’s youngsters to feel some big-game jitters going up against such a high caliber opponent as Kansas. But the freshmen would have none of that, as McCants racked up 25 points on ten of 15 shooting while May added 11 boards and five blocks.
Carolina never trailed in the second half, walking away with a convincing 67-56 victory in the preseason tournament semifinals. Almost as an afterthought, the Tar Heels tucked away the tourney trophy last Friday beating Stanford handily, 74-57. Nowhere to be found in the preseason rankings, Carolina currently stands at No. 12 in the national polls.
Now, after a 27-point trouncing by Illinois on
Tuesday, the young Tar Heels face yet another hurdle, and will have to bounce back quickly if they plans to start a new win streak this Saturday against Kentucky.
Before UNC even reaches conference play on its schedule, the young core of players will have already had a major statement game, a come-from-behind victory and an impressive upset on national television under its belt. Without question, these early season experiences will prove to be invaluable down the road when the Tar Heels go to war against their talented ACC foes, in addition to quality non-conference opponents like the Kentucky Wildcats and Miami Hurricanes.
This trinity of freshman is being asked to provide more than just temporary relief to a program that has grown to accept nothing less than a mass of wins and national title contention on a yearly basis.
Already poised and mature beyond their years, the talented rookies are capable of playing a full 40 minutes of intelligent basketball on a nightly basis. Combine that with a vast arsenal of post and perimeter skills and you have a rare commodity in the youthful trifecta.
Unfortunately, due to the state that the game of college basketball is in today, the real question regarding the rookies’ impact at Carolina quickly shifts from “if” to “how long?”
While there seems to be a good chance that May, the squad’s top rebounder, could stay in school for as many as three to four years, scouting services predict that McCants, who is currently leading the team in scoring, and Felton will only be on campus for a season or two at the most.
For now, it seems things are back to normal in Tar Heel Country. McCants, Felton and May look as good as advertised, and it would seem to reason that each will only get better with time.
The rest of the year looks bright for Doherty and his troops, whose competitive palates are once again wet with the sweet taste of victory.
Whether this freshman class can be the foundation for a long-term solution and not merely provide a temporary fix, however, banks heavily on the condition that they stay long enough to permanently leave their heel prints on the Smith Center court.