Learning a lot from Challenges
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- What did eighty minutes of basketball in the heart of North Carolina during the 2003 ACC/Big Ten Challenge teach us Tuesday night? Plenty.
The Tar Heels discovered they're a tougher team than folks are willing to admit after finishing off a big-time Big Ten opponent.
Wake Forest understands a freshman named Chris Paul could be the leader senior Josh Howard was last season.
Illinois still needs to get its motion offense down and make better decisions.
And even in losing by 33 points, Indiana (at the very least) found out that Patrick Ewing Jr., when given the time, has serious game -- as a shooter, shot-blocker, rebounder and overall energy player.
Oh, and getting from Winston-Salem to Greensboro on a weeknight along I-40 is pretty easy ... when a Wake Forest student is behind the wheel.
Yes, learning something new about these four teams in two games during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge was worth every bit of the effort. And all four teams will likely look back on this night as one that will ultimately define their season.
Carolina got tested at Cleveland State on Saturday night, beating the Vikings by a slim 82-76 margin. But that wasn't supposed to be the Heels' early exam.
"Saturday night was as low as I've felt in coaching," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, putting immense emphasis on a random non-conference road game. "We didn't guard anybody. We were selfish."
The fallout from that game wasn't pretty, either. Jackie Manuel was listed as questionable for Illinois because of a sprained left medial collateral ligament suffered in the first half against Cleveland State. Then Jawad Williams suffered a right hip pointer during Sunday's practice. Teammate Sean May said Williams couldn't even walk Monday because of the pain.
Manuel said he wasn't sure he would play. Williams said playing was a must. But their teammates weren't certain that either could.
"They sucked it up and played through the pain," point guard Raymond Felton said.
"Their toughness is what we have to have if we're going to be successful," Roy Williams said.
Jawad Williams finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, including a rebound and layup to give the Tar Heels an 81-78 lead with 1:45 left in the game. That kind of late-game management propelled Carolina to the 88-81 victory over Illinois. This, after North Carolina saw a five-point lead reduced to one with two minutes remaining. But the Tar Heels immediately stretched the advantage back to five over the next 80 seconds.
What would have happened a year ago?
"We would have lost," Manuel said.
"We would have folded," Jawad Williams said.
"We would have laid down," Sean May said.
"We would have taken crazy shots and lost our poise," said Felton.
Felton, a sophomore, called the win over Illinois the Tar Heels' most important in his brief tenure in Chapel Hill.
There could be some truth in his sentiments.
Carolina was playing to the masses in the middle of the state, and the buzz inside the Greensboro Coliseum was palpable through every possession. But these Heels -- the same Heels who have missed the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons -- had to convince the extended Carolina Nation that this was a new year, a new team, with a new way to win.
And they were able to do it by playing just seven players, two of which were in pain.
The Tar Heels desperately needed this win in light of their next big-time game on Dec. 20 ... against Wake Forest. That's right. Someone in the ACC office got it right by scheduling the first ACC game before Christmas between Wake Forest and North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The Demon Deacons' 100-67 undressing of Indiana earlier Tuesday night was a work of art for Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.
Paul, who should challenge Duke's Luol Deng for top freshman honors in the ACC this season, was sensational. It wasn't that he scored a career-high 20 points, but also that he had five steals and eight assists. Paul was all over Indiana's Bracey Wright and anyone else who tried to bring up the ball. He was a pest that wouldn't go away quietly.
And he couldn't be more grounded for a blue-chipper put in charge of the Demon Deacons. Prior to the game, the almost too-polite Paul was discussing his first semester at Wake Forest. He addressed the ESPN crew by using the formal "Mister" before each person's name. He said his grades were good and that school wasn't so hard yet. He was told, he said, it would get harder.
Well, the 2003-04 season was supposed to be difficult as well -- not only for Wake as it transitioned from regular-season ACC champion, but for a point guard stepping into the ACC and replacing the ACC player of the year Howard. No, Paul doesn't play the same position as Howard, but the Deacons were looking for a new catalyst.
They found the right guy in Paul.
Paul said after the game he was having fun against Indiana. That much was clear during the game. When Paul checked into the game at one point when the Deacons were already up by 20, he had a big smile as he chatted up the officials. He didn't upstage the Hoosiers at any point in the game, as even they said after the game that he was a pleasure to watch and rated him as one of the top opposing point guards.
Prior to the game, Prosser sat on the bench, watching his team warm up, and said he is getting as much enjoyment out of coaching this team as any he has had in his career. He can't wait to get to practice because this team enjoys being coached, is receptive to his teaching and is a group of genuinely good people.
Prosser has plenty of options too, such as Eric Williams, who scored a career-high 25 points inside. Vytas Danelius, Justin Gray and Jamaal Levy also each reached double figures in scoring (which happens when a team scores better than two points a minute). And then there was Trent Strickland, who made his only 3-point attempt and finished on putbacks for seven points. He was about as solid a role player as any we've seen so far this season.
Role play, meanwhile, is still developing at Illinois, where the Illini just have to figure out how they're going to play the motion offense in tight games. They were close to pulling off the win, and kept pushing Carolina.
"We haven't played many teams that pressured us but Carolina," Illinois' Deron Williams said. "We just have to work on the mental stuff."
Illinois' Dee Brown didn't stop moving the whole game. His conditioning started with two summer foreign trips with USA Basketball and another with the Illini to Greece and Scandinavia. But he just has to harness his go, go, go style at the end of games.
"The conditioning we went through at the beginning of the year did us justice," Brown said. "We did a lot of running and it was good for us. It was the difference between two weeks (under Bill Self) and six weeks (under new coach Bruce Weber). This will be good for us since a lot of teams like to run like North Carolina. We've got good endurance."
But Brown did overstep his bounds a bit while trying to get the offense going, shooting too quickly in finishing 3-for-17 overall, 2-for-10 on 3s for 8 points.
"Dee was so hyped up and he struggled early and it got to his head," said Weber, coaching in his first big-time game with the Illini. "We realized what we have to work on and now they're willing to listen. This was different than Temple. This was in front of 16,000 people. If you're going to win in the Big Ten, you have to win on the road. I was hoping we would compete and they did."
Illinois is in the midst of a brutal stretch after beating Temple on the road and losting to Carolina. The Illini play Arkansas in Chicago and Providence in New York in the next week.
Indiana welcomes No. 5 Missouri to Bloomington on Saturday, and coach Mike Davis can stop selling that Ewing Jr. will compete if given the chance. He had to give him that opportunity Tuesday with forward George Leach out indefinitely with a knee injury. And, with Ewing's mother in the crowd, the son of the great NBA center was the most active player for the Hoosiers on a night when nothing seemed to go right for anyone else.
Ewing dove for loose balls, challenged shots, made a spin move inside and a mid-range jumper. He hit all four free-throw attempts, and finished with eight points and nine boards in his first career start.
Indiana doesn't get a chance to regroup with the Tigers in town. But the Hoosiers at least have Ewing's play to praise after an otherwise lost evening just off Tobacco Road.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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