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.

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.

Virginia upends No. 5 Florida State, 61-56

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Remember back to the season’s opening night? Nearly three months ago? That was when Virginia embarrassed Syracuse in a 48-34 win. That game foretold a lot of the season up to this point for the Cavaliers. Their title-defending team would have the defense that’s defined Tony Bennett’s program while the offense, well, that would be a bit of a struggle. What it did not predict was more Quad 1 wins, as the Cavaliers, despite a dominating defense, failed to rack up another such victory after that season-opener.

Until Tuesday.

Virginia injected some life into its NCAA tournament hopes with a 61-56 win over fifth-ranked Florida State in Charlottesville to pick up a critical victory in an ACC that offers far fewer marquee opportunities than in years past.

The victory was exactly what Bennett’s team needed to help buoy that resume before the start of February. January was extremely rough on them with a 3-4 mark before the win over the Seminoles put them at .500 for the month. With only four chances left against the ACC’s best of FSU, Duke and Louisville, beating the Seminoles at home may not have been an absolute-must for the Cavs, but it sure makes it a lot easier to chart a path to the tournament now, even if it’s still a rocky road, than if they had dropped the game.

Point guard Kihei Clark scored 11 of his 15 points after halftime, changing the game offensively for the Cavaliers with his dribble penetration into the middle of the Florida State defense. He wasn’t wildly efficient, but his ability to get into the teeth of the defense – creating some buckets and free throws for himself and chances for his teammates – provided just enough lift for the offensively-challenged team. His beautiful reverse layup with a minute left gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish as it closed the game on an 8-0 run.

Mamadi Diakite had 19 points and nine boards for Virginia while Braxton Key had 13 points and nine rebounds.

The loss stops a 10-game winning streak for the ‘Noles, who led for most of the game but could not ever find any meaningful separation. Devin Vassell had 17 points to lead Florida State, which had two shots to tie the game in the final seconds but missed both 3-point attempts horribly. If Virginia can surge a little in the season’s final month, this win won’t be much more than a missed opportunity for the Seminoles, but if it proves to just be a blip on the radar for Virginia, Florida State may have done some damage to its seed line Tuesday.