Tommy: The Early Knockout

It takes a strong person to stand up and admit when he's wrong. I'll do my part from the start. I said recently that I thought Rashad McCants would be a nice sixth man in Carolina's rotation. No team could match his fire and ability off the bench, I said.

While the second part of my then-belief may still ring true, I'll promptly withdraw my Sixth Man thought and go with coach Matt Doherty's choice for the Carolina starting lineup. Three frosh. Two Sophs. That'll work.

A lot can be said for starting slow, getting a feel for your opponent before turning up the heat.

Then again, I always liked the early day Mike Tyson fights. Bell. BANG. Time to go home.

Monday night's win over Penn State certainly played out like those pre-Robin Givens Mike Tyson forays into the ring as the three most hyped freshmen in Carolina history helped the Tar Heels jump on the Nittany Lions early, with both feet, erasing any anxiety Carolina supporters had going into the first game of the year.

Sure, it's just one game and it was just Penn State, but watching the Heels have their way with any team was enjoyable, in light of "the unspeakable." (We all know of "the unspeakable," right?) In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I saw more positives in the first half, heck, even the first five minutes of Monday's game than I witnessed in all of last season.

Those positives were easy to see. Speed, quickness, slick passing, consistent three-point shooting, and pressure defense. This Carolina team is far superior to last year's version in those areas and proved so in the first half alone.

The play of McCants, Raymond Felton, Sean May and especially Jackie Manuel was stellar considering it was the first official time the three freshmen have donned the Carolina jersey and the first game for Manuel after a less than pleasing freshman campaign. Despite the unfair ripping he has received by some in the media recently, Manuel proved his worth to this team Monday night. His ability to defend three positions and take his man on the offensive end frees up the rest of the Heels to do what they do best. In reality, Manuel may be the best defender on the team, though the entire Carolina lineup can be suffocating for opponents if they maintain the intensity they played with against Penn State.

As expected, after Monday's game, many Heel fans are going off the deep end with expectations for the year. After perusing the InsideCarolina.com message boards, I see one person has gone so far to suggest the Heels can win the National Championship. This year.

While not wanting to rain on anyone's parade, I'd say, whoa, slow down and step away from the keyboard and put down the sauce.

Granted, this Carolina team will be as exciting as any in history. Monday night's first half reminded me a lot of the win over South Carolina in December of 1994 as Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace assaulted the rim and rolled over the Gamecocks, holding a ridiculous halftime lead before winning 95-58. (While I am living in the past, a lot of folks see Vince Carter in Rashad McCants. I see Jerry Stackhouse. Same game, same relative size, same warrior attitude.)

With all the good shown on the floor, potential roadblocks did briefly show up in the second half. Those things should be flagged and Doherty will have his hands full at creating a game plan to shore the questioned areas up.

One, rebounding. There's no magic bullet here. Carolina will have to rely on hustle and desire because Sean May will not be able to grab every errant shot. Boxing out will be a premium. 15 offensive rebounds given up to Penn State is the most disturbing stat from the game.

Two, defense and depth. I think these two run hand in hand since it's tough to play solid defense while gasping for breath. Doherty and his staff must find a way to keep the five on the floor fresh, especially late in games. Carolina's defense was very good at times while lacking at others. Lion guard Brandon Watkins penetrated too easily in the second half and exposed one of the Tar Heels' weaknesses. Did the Heels let up in the second half or was the team tired and unable to step up the defensive pressure? Time will certainly bring us the answer. How the coaching staff handles that answer will be reflected in the season win/loss record.

So, plenty of reason to be optimistic while a couple reasons to be guarded. No matter how things turn out, again I say this season will be fun to watch.


Tommy Ashley can be reached via email at carolina93@nc.rr.com.

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