Blogger Spotlight: Tar Heel Fan talks about UNC’s season, next year and more

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North Carolina’s week ended with its annual team banquet and various awards, but still no news on Harrison Barnes’ future in Chapel Hill.

So, while we wait for one of the nation’s top freshmen to decide on the NBA draft, let’s keep things topical, shall we? Let’s talk Tar Heel hoops with the man behind one of the best Carolina blogs out there, Brian Barbour. I read his site, Tar Heel Fan, for the hoops talk (there are other sports on there as well) and it rarely disappoints.

He took his time to talk about the Heels’ entertaining season, the development of John Henson and Tyler Zeller, why Kendall Marshall and Henson are so popular among the fans and more in Blogger Spotlight.

Q: You saw this season coming, right? The 7-4 start, Larry Drew taking off, Kendall Marshall taking over, Harrison Barnes struggling, then hitting big shots and just missing out on the Final Four. Just a typical year in Chapel Hill…or not.

A: It was different but also reminded me of 2007 when the Tar Heels were young but very talented and had their share of growing pains loses. The primary difference is this 2011 team did an incredible job winning games that were very close or they had no business winning(see the ACC Tournament games vs. Miami and Clemson.) It was also unusual to watch a UNC team under Roy Williams have struggles on the offensive end but effectively win games with their defense.

After the trauma of last season it was very much an exercise in Tar Heel fans slowly trusting that UNC was back in business.

Q: Was it a tough season to watch? That is, until late January, did you sit there thinking, “I know we can be better.”

A: Yes and no. When we did our predictions at THF we all assumed the bulk of the regular season losses would come in ACC play. The opposite was true. UNC lost four games before January and after the inexplicable 20-point loss at Georgia Tech it appeared things were again going to head south. The one interesting constant was Roy Williams who never wavered from his insistence that the team would get better.

Unlike last season when he was at his wits end trying to figure his team out, this season he appeared in full control and somehow knew this team would gel. Overall I think it was a fun season and this group(sans Drew) is quickly becoming an all-time favorite team among UNC fans.

Q: What surprised you most about the season? I was a little surprised the frontcourt thrived despite its lack of depth and relative inexperience. But Tyler Zeller and John Henson were damn good.

A: Tyler Zeller was very good. While his style is notable less physical that Tyler Hansbrough he often produces the same results on the offensive end. Zeller ended up being the most consistent and productive player on the court for the Tar Heels to the point I don’t think they went to him enough at times. As for John Henson, his defense was a game changer. Henson’s freakish length and athleticism changed how teams approached the basket and inbounded the basketball along the baseline. Putting these two on the floor together with Harrison Barnes meant UNC has three potential first round picks in their frontline, two of them lottery.

Name another team that boasted the kind of frontline that was solid on both ends on the floor.

Q: Last team I can think of like that was 2007 Florida. That speaks volume for the sheer talent in Chapel Hill. Nothing like setting up massive expectations for next season, right?

A: Not any worse than 2009 which was a team that absolutely had to win the national title or it was going to be deemed a missed opportunity. There was also an element of cementing Tyler Hansbrough as one of the greatest Tar Heels of all time. That season had a lot of pressure associated with it to the point it was almost not enjoyable. The same could be true here but at the same time his particular group has endeared themselves to UNC fans in general.

Speaking for myself, I am going to enjoy the ride with the expectation they at least make it to the Final Four and from there we will see.

Q: How much will Harrison Barnes affect next season? Carolina’s a title contender even he goes pro.

A: Interesting question because on one hand Barnes could have an outstanding NPOY-type sophomore season. Barnes has that certain intangible to elevate his game at certain points in a contest to give his team the extra boost they need. There is also his penchant for hitting clutch shots. Those aspects, his overall game and the fact he is a great defender will be missed.

However, this team should still go to the Final Four providing they can find some three point shooting(true even if Barnes returns), UNC will still have Tyler Zeller and John Henson who are both first round picks in the NBA. Incoming freshman James McAdoo is being projected in the top five. The absence of Barnes would also refine the rotation a little. Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston probably end up at SF with Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald holding down the two. Kendall Marshall will be spelled by Strickland and freshman Stillman White. Then you have a solid frontline, especially if UNC gets a commit from Desmond Hubert.

In short, with Barnes, UNC has the potential to be legendary. Without him, they are still as good as past UNC teams that were capable of winning a national title.

Q: Who’s the fan favorite on this team?

A: It is probably a close race between John Henson and Kendall Marshall. Henson is so much fun to watch and his freakish length provides those “wow” plays you love as a fan. Marshall is just an outstanding kid both on and off the court. When Larry Drew left the team and Marshall came out vs Florida St. with a record setting 16 assists, he nearly made himself a legend just halfway through his freshman season. Marshall’s proclivity for the jaw dropping pass and the leadership he shows on the team has quickly won over the fan base.

Now that they are playing against the regular students in pickup games on campus once or twice a week, these guys have achieved rock star status.

Q: Have you gotten in on any of those games? That would make for a must-read post on THF.

A: Unfortunately my job keeps from taking off to Chapel Hill in the middle of the afternoon to watch. I get by on local media video but I imagine it would be awesome to watch them play and interact with the students.

Q: How’d you get into blogging? Was it one specific aspect of being a North Carolina fan that prompted it? The blog tackles everything now, but I always looked to it for hoops first.

A: I used to spend time on various blogs and message boards posting my opinions or debating with other posters. I reached a point where I decided to channel my content into my own blog rather than posting on a message board where smart content gets lost in the insanity of others. So I started THF with a goal of running a fan site that while obviously biased is also intellectually honesty and extremely credible.

The growth of the blog and its recognition among those in the local media here in Raleigh confirms we are doing something right. As for content, personally speaking UNC basketball is my first love among all sports. That probably does tilt the direction of the blog but so does the general readership which is always more basketball-centric. UNC basketball has also been far more successful during the life of the blog though the football program has given us plenty to write about for the right and wrong reasons.

Q: You’ve expanded THF as well. How’d you go about adding writers? Necessity?

A: I really wanted to add some new voices to the blog rather than giving readers just my take. Both Doc and C. Michael had been contributing in the comments section and I thought it would be interesting to have them contribute regularly in the main content area.

C. Michael handles most of the heavy statistical analysis which has really augmented the blog reputation for smart analysis. C. Michael’s regular feature of in-depth box score analysis was some of the best out there. Doc, who has spent time in the coaching ranks and also a graduate of UNC, provides great opinions on variety of issues all across the spectrum. His work during the NCAA scandal has been must read and spot on. Overall the more content a blog produces the more growth you see and their contributions have been invaluable in this regard.

Q: As some blogs go dark (Free Darko) and some bloggers (KJ at The Only Colors) phase out of regular duties, I’m reminded of what a grind blogging can be. What’s in your future?

A: The blog really has some good momentum going fueled by having multiple contributors to help carry the load. I work a full time job and have a family so being able to lean on two other writers has really made blogging less of a grind than it was two years ago. My plan is to ride it as far as it will go and see what happens.

The internet is so fluid. When I started THF blogging was just emerging as a semi-legitimate media outlet and Twitter was non-existent. Now Twitter and blogging are intertwined and blogs like THF are acknowledged by serious journalists as legitimate sources of opinion. Ultimately what I would love to see is THF be recognized as a legitimate media outlet with the same access as other online sites like Inside Carolina. There has been a lot of progress in terms of how bloggers are viewed and I would very much like to see THF at the forefront as this new media develops.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jalen Brunson is making up ground

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Trae Young is the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year. At this point, if he doesn’t win the award, something crazy will have to happen.

So I’ll be using this space simply to take a look at my favorite part of the way that the players on this list play. Here is a look at the way that Young was able to create space to his threes off against TCU. Like Steph Curry, Young is short, doesn’t get all that much elevation when he shoots and a relatively low release-point. But quick feet, a super-quick release, ridiculous range and an innate ability to stay on-balance lets him do things like this:

(Some of these shots are insanely difficult.)

2. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, as he is now being allowed to post up with more impunity. This creates a nightmare scenario for opponents. He is simply too good and too big for just about any point guard to stop on the block, but you cannot send an extra defender because double-teaming one of the best point guards in the country is just not doable, not when he is surrounded by four knock-down shooters.

Here’s a breakdown of why this makes Villanova that much more dangerous.

3. MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: The debate over whether or not Bagley is better than Ayton is going to rage all season long. Personally, I think that Ayton is a better prospect that Bagley largely because I think he has an easier fit defensively at the next level. Right now, however, Ayton is probably a marginally better defender while Bagley is a better offensive weapon.

But Bagley is clearly the leader in terms of the Player of the Year race for the simple fact that he has won games on his own by simply being absolutely dominant in the paint.

4. DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: See above.

5. KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: For my money, four of the spots for first-team all-american are more or less locked in: Young, Brunson, Bagley and Ayton. There is a lot of season left to play, but right now those four have a solid lead on the field.

My favorite subplot of the race for the Big 12 title is that each of the four teams at the top of the conference are led by point guards that have a real shot at being first-team all-americans. Young, obviously, is going to be there. But the fifth-spot is race between Evans, Devonte’ Graham and Jevon Carter. A week ago I thought Carter was the pick. After seeing what Evans did down the stretch in a win over the Mountaineers over the weekend, I’m now leaning his way. But Graham, who has been terrific all season long, was good down the stretch in a win at West Virginia.

6. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas
7. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia
8. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State
9. KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
10. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier

ALSO CONSIDERED: MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova; JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; LUKE MAYE, North Carolina; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota;  DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play:

No. 10 Kansas overcomes deficits and its own issues to win at No. 6 West Virginia

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It’s hard to look at Kansas – the roster, the stats, the resume and all that comes with it – and not conclude this is the most vulnerable squad the Jayhawks have fielded since its current domination of the Big 12 began in 2005. The flaws are apparent, and they’re serious. They could easily be enough to sink the Jayhawks in an unforgiving conference.

It also could just be business as usual for Bill Self’s program

Tenth-ranked Kansas sputtered and struggled Monday night, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as the Jayhawks stole a game at a rowdy WVU Coliseum, topping sixth-ranked West Virginia, 71-66, to keep its spot atop the Big 12 despite whatever issues bothered them against the Mountaineers and may persist well into the winter.

One of the major differences of this Kansas team from the 13 that preceded it is the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm with talent and athleticism. There’s no Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Thomas Robinson or any other surefire lottery pick to just go get buckets. There isn’t a host of high-level athletes that can help Kansas just run inferior teams off the floor. When you have two things, your margin of error gets padded. Mistakes aren’t magnified. They’re minimized. That’s not a luxury Kansas now enjoys.

Then there’s the issue of the roster. Even with Silvio De Sousa being declared eligible, Kansas is still incredibly thin and inexperienced up front. Udoka Azubuike is a load, but he’s the only big man that even inspires a bit of fear from opponents. If Billy Preston ever gets on the floor, maybe this becomes less of an issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s difficult to believe a true freshman making a whole host of difference this late in the season.

So for Kansas to win its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season championship, the Jayhawks are going to have to have to play a specific way. There’s not much wiggle room. They’ve got to defend. They’ve got to shoot 3s. They’ve got to be tough. They’ve got to be resilient.

That’s exactly what the Jayhawks were against Bob Huggins’ team Monday. If you can out-tough, out-hustle and out-work a Huggins team on their home floor, you’re on to something.

West Virginia led by as many as 16 in the first half. The Mountaineers had Kansas shook. Well Sagaba Konate did, at least. Eulogies were already being written for Kansas, especially as West Virginia’s lead stayed in double digits past the midway point of the second half.

West Virginia is designed to wear down opponents. The Mountaineers try to create a crucible, especially in Morgantown, that will force opponents to wilt. That’s supposed to be its most potent late in games.

That’s when Kansas thrived.

The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia 26-11 over the final 8 minutes. The Mountaineers were 5 of 14 (35.7 percent) from the floor with four turnovers during that stretch. Kansas, conversely, make 7 of 10 shots overall and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

It wasn’t exactly rope-a-dope, but Kansas saved its best for last. They made winning plays. That’s really what’s going to have to separate them from the pack this season. As good as Devonte Graham is, as effective as Svi Mykhailiuk can be and as good as Self is, the Jayhawks are going to have to grind more than they’re accustomed to. 

The Big 12 is unmerciful this season. Texas Tech already has a win at Allen Fieldhouse, Trae Young has gone full supernova and even the league’s bottom tier looks like tough outs. Kansas faces a major test, and they’ll do so without a roster that compares to some of the powerhouses Self has assembled. The Jayhawks have often been able to win just by delivering broad strokes. They were bigger, faster, stronger and, simply, better. When they coupled that with a mastery of the finer points of the game, they dominated.

If The Streak is going to reach 14, it won’t be with that blueprint. The grittier parts of the game are going to have to come to the forefront. Outlasting West Virginia in Morgantown while shooting 44 percent and facing double-digit deficits would suggest the Jayhawks have the toughness and ability to make clutch plays that can paper over other issues.

Kansas isn’t going to overwhelm the Big 12 this year. They still very well could win it.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: Duke wins, Kansas wins and … BC wins?

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1. SO MAYBE KANSAS IS GOING TO WIN THE BIG 12 AFTER ALL

It happens EVERY YEAR.

Kansas goes on some prolonged slump, plays like a hot garbage for a few weeks and gets all of us thinking that yes, this year is different than all of the other years, that this is the year the Jayhawks won’t actually win the Big 12 regular season title.

I am a member of that club, and I feel pretty stupid after Monday night.

Kansas went into Morgantown and knocked off No. 6 West Virginia, 71-66, despite trailing for the majority of the game and spending the first 12 minutes of the second half staring up at a double-digit deficit. Simply put: the Jayhawks had no business winning on Monday night, and yet they did anyway, moving themselves into sole possession of first place in the Big 12 and making up for the fact that they lost at home to Texas Tech earlier this season.

Our Travis Hines penned a column on this game, so I’ll let him elaborate more, but one thing I will note here is that Silvio De Sousa played well in some important minutes at the end of the first half. Turning him into a player that can be a competent energy for 10-15 minutes off the bench will be massive.

2. BC’S ROLLING

The Jim Christian era at Boston College hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows. The Eagles have never finished a season above .500 and failed to reach double-digit wins the last two years. That put Christian on the hot seat coming into the season and with little reason to believe the temperature would come down in the always-competitive ACC.

Things, though, have been pretty good – at least when judged against the last three years – in Chestnut Hill. With Monday’s 81-75 win over Florida State, Boston College is now 3-3 in the ACC, which exceeds its conference win total from the last two years…combined. Yes. BC won just two games against ACC opponents combined in 2016 and 2017, winning two games last year after going 0-18 the season prior.

It hasn’t really been a function of scheduling or luck, either. Other than getting stomped by North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Boston College has been competitive every night out, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and Clemson. Now, don’t go putting Boston College in the FIeld of 68 or anything like that just yet, but it’s easy to see that after three years in the woods, the Eagles may be closer to finding something akin to consistent competency.

3. DUKE IS STARTING TO PLAY SOME DEFENSE

The Blue Devils won at No. 25 Miami tonight. Rob Dauster has a column up on that game right now which gets into everything you need to know.

But there is this tidbit that is important to know: Duke allowed less than 1.00 points-per-possession on Monday night. It’s the third straight game that they have allowed less than 1.00 PPP, and that’s the first time that they have done that since 2014.

Granted, the best offense in those three games ranks outside the top 50 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric (Wake Forest) and two of them (Miami, 107th, and Pitt, 236th) rank outside the top 100. but you have to start somewhere. Is this the beginning of another defensive renaissance?