Heels miss the tourney, Duke wins it all--nothing would please Duke fans more than a repeat of the 2009-10 season, which is why I'm pleased to tell them it won't happen.
1. It's a different cast of characters...with a different cast of character. Any argument that we are witnessing a repeat of the 2010 Tar Heels must be rooted in one of two beliefs: that a blowout loss to No. 1 Indiana is equivalent to an overtime loss to the College of Charleston (see Reason 2); or, that Marcus Paige is Larry Drew, James Michael McAdoo is Ed Davis, P. J. Hairston is Will Graves, Joel James is Deon Thompson, and senior Dexter Strickland is freshman Dexter Strickland.
They are not. That 2010 team, in essence, was made up of quitters and softies. Three explicitly quit and went to Los Angeles. Davis implicitly quit before his injury and went to the NBA (remember the "these guys are hurting my draft status" rumors?). Graves didn't have to quit; he did enough to get kicked off in the off-season (and never really started anything to quit in the first place). The rest of the impressionable crew, Marcus Ginyard aside, were left with Deon Thompson (the 6'10" version of a 6'6" Brendan Haywood) for a mentor, a guy whose ability to take up space was bested only by his inability to clear any of it.
These are not they. Our guys this year are not quitters. Hairston and James may go down as two of the toughest players in the Roy Williams era. Will Graves, Deon Thompson, and crew would never have been able to muster the Butler comeback, and teams expecting to take advantage of a weaker Heels team this season will be duly disillusioned. The problems with this team arise because they are not consistently aggressive, not because they are constitutionally soft. When the aggressiveness becomes standard, they will put opponents on their backs.
2. The timing is different. The 2010 Heels were cruising along at 11-3 in the Fall of '09, beating all the teams they should have beaten, and losing only to three top 10 teams, two of whom finished the season in the top 3. The wheels didn't fall off until January when they lost to the College of Charleston. That was the turning point.
By contrast, we're still in the first month of the season. This current team is so young, and it's so early in the season, that they haven't yet put anything together that could fall apart. The losses they've experienced so far are more a matter of figuring out who they are than the implosion of a known entity. Once this team gets on track, I don't see them derailing. They'll still lose a couple games they probably shouldn't, but it won't be a complete unraveling. They'll win a few they "shouldn't," too.
3. We know who our point guard is. We don't know how he will be, but at least we know who he will be. In 2010, Drew was our nominal point guard. He started almost every game and played 29 minutes. But Strickland also put in 17 minutes a game, the majority of which was at point. You got the feeling throughout the year that Roy was perpetually leaving the door open for one or the other to win the starting spot each game. Neither was ever secure in his first- or second-string role.
By deciding to start Paige from day one as a freshman, and stay with him even as he struggles, Roy has declared who the point guard of this team is. Strickland still plays backup, but it's not his primary role, and he knows that he is only to be utilized as a backup. The outset has been bumpy (it is for any freshman point guard at UNC), but the roles are better defined. As Paige adjusts and gets more comfortable with the job he's been thrust into, he will become a real weapon offensively, and the team will stabilize at a high level. Four weeks in, Roy's security with Paige's role makes me more optimisitc than Paige's erstwhile performance in that role makes me pessimize.
4. We have exorcised the demons. With John Henson's decision to turn pro, every haunting spirit of that ill-fated season has been vanquished. Graduation, transfer, dismissal, and the NBA Draft have siphoned off every doomed and damned vestige of that horrific year. Only Strickland and McDonald remain, and Fate struck their ACLs in recompense last season--they have shaken off their past and are beginning anew. A meltdown of 2010 proportions requires harsh penance to the gods of basketball. We have paid our dues, endured our punishment. The curse has to be lifted.
5. It's happened before.The starkest difference between 2010 and 2013 is the transpiring of 2010 itself. Before 2010, Roy couldn't fathom that that type of season could ever come to pass--not that he couldn't have an off year, but that his players could actually be so uninvested, callous, and resigned. He honestly seemed as dumbfounded, frustrated, and shocked as the rest of us.
The 17 losses were the most he's ever experienced as a head coach (by 5); 2010 was the first and only time since his first season that he missed the NCAA tournament; and, it was the first and only time since his first season that he had a losing conference record. Thankfully, that kind of thing is hard to forget.
So, if you're expecting a rehash of the worst Carolina season since Doherty, you're basically betting that this team is mentally and physically soft, that they will remain that way all year long, that they will never gel, that Paige will never adjust, and that the Hall of Fame head coach will have learned nothing from the most disappointing season of his career. That's not where I'd put my money.
1. I don't trust Mason Plumlee.I don't trust his uncoordinated athleticism, I don't trust his foul-shooting, and most importantly, I don't trust him as a leader. He's no Hurley, he's no Laettner...he's not even a Singler or Scheyer. As far as leadership goes, he's not much more than Miles. Mason could average 20 and 10 this year (in fact, teams should let him), but if Duke wins the conference, it'll be because of Curry and Kelly. This isn't underestimation--he's a force and a double-double machine. There's just a certain something he doesn't have that makes it easy to envision his season ending in tears on the bench mid-March.
2. I don't trust the point guard...whoever he is.Whether it's Quinn Cook or Tyler Thornton, neither have proven to be the typical, dependable catalyst of Duke offense. The fact that Thornton is even an option here is evidence enough for doubt. At 11 ppg, 6 apg, and 45% 3FG, Cook has definitely stepped it up from a year ago. But there's an erraticism about him that tends to unreliability and separates him even from the Nolan Smiths and John Scheyers of recent Dukedom.
3. I don't trust Rasheed Sulaimon. Simply because he's a freshman, and must consistently play like an upperclassman. Next to Seth Curry, he's actually the player I fear most on this team, but I fear him because he's streaky. He's a phenomenal talent, but banking on a freshman to provide a solid and consistent 32 minutes every night out is risky--especially when you're relying on Thornton and Alex Murphy to pick up his slack on an off night.
4. I don't trust the bench.More accurately, I don't trust a team that doesn't trust their bench. Duke's starters are all averaging over 30 mpg with only one other player averaging more than 10. Is that happening at any other program in the nation? Their seventh man has offered 11 points, 13 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 1 steal, 16 fouls, and 1 disqualification in 68 minutes this year. Alex Murphy's been a disappointment, Amile Jefferson hasn't been what was expected, and at 3 and 7 mpg respectively, neither is getting the experience they need to improve. Maybe that's what December is for, but I doubt it. Duke has also had three players foul out a total of four times in seven games so far. Dangerous.
5. I don't trust the inside game.There's no four-man cadre of Plumlees, Zoubeks, and Lance Thomases to rotate in this year to slap offensive boards back out to three-point shooters. Other than Mason, Josh Hairston is the only other true post player on the team, and he's averaging 9.7 mpg. Maximizing possessions through offensive boards is a big part of Duke basketball, and I'm not sure who's supposed to give Mason consistent aid on that front. Kelly and Sulaimon are Duke's next best rebounders at just under 5 per game, and that's probably their ceiling. So far, Duke's rebound margin is only 3.2 points worse than 2010 at +3, but that accounts for more than a 50% reduction in that department.