Heels star has grown into king of the court
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The announcement was made during Roy Williams' postgame news conference that Rashad McCants was dressed and ready to meet the media.
The media horde moved like a pack into the North Carolina player's lounge surrounding a plush comfortable sitting chair.
For now, McCants can claim to be a bit of a king, at least offensively. Through the first seven games of the season, capped by his season-high 28 points in the Tar Heels' 91-78 victory over a young, but pesky Kentucky on Saturday at the Smith Center, it would be hard to find a more polished offensive player -- or one as productive -- on an elite team.
"He's one of the best scorers I've ever seen," said junior classmate Sean May, who had 19 boards to lead the Tar Heels to a 51-30 rebounding edge. "He knocks down big shots when he wants to. He's by far the most dominant scorer in college basketball."
Sure, there are players who are scoring more points than his 20.3 a game, but leading the country in scoring isn't what McCants is about this season.
He wants a championship ring, and to achieve that goal, he's doing his part to carry the offensive burden for the Tar Heels.
"We've got a goal, and that's to make it to St. Louis," McCants said of the site of the 2005 Final Four. "Everybody should be talking about St. Louis."
McCants scored 20 of his game-high 28 on 7-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-7 on 3-pointers, which are becoming his signature shot.
When McCants made a 3-pointer with three seconds remaining in the first half to push the Tar Heels up by 15, he did his best home run pose. McCants stopped and watched the shot sink through the net. For him, the 3-pointer has become his home run, and for an opposing team, it's as momentum-breaking a shot as a blast out of a park.
"I feel like whenever I shoot the ball [from beyond the 3-point line], there is a 50 percent chance it's going to go in, maybe more now," said McCants, who is shooting 53.5 percent on 3s.
McCants is scoring in a variety of ways, from the 3-point line, driving to the basket, on the break, along the baseline and at the free-throw line, where he was 10-of-11 Saturday.
"His strength is his ability to shoot, and you have to respect that," said Kentucky's Bobby Perry, one of many who tried to no avail to contain McCants. "He can jump up and shoot over you, ball fake and get you off your feet. You have to make him go where you want him to go."
That was easier a year ago when McCants' worst enemy was himself. McCants had his poorest performance of last season against Kentucky on Jan. 3, 2004, at Rupp Arena.
McCants was 2-for-7, 0-for-3 on 3s, for four points, with five turnovers and plenty of scorn from Williams after a stern look when he was on the bench.
But the two broke bread after that fiasco and McCants made at least one 3-pointer a game the rest of the season and scored in double figures in all but two of the remaining games.
Sure, McCants can be moody and has been burned by his own quotes in the offseason, let alone essentially getting himself cut from the USA Basketball team that won a gold medal in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last July. But, back then, like Saturday, he was the most talented offensive player on the court.
|“||[McCants] has the ability to score as well as anybody I've ever coached as a perimeter player. ”|
|— UNC coach Roy Williams|
Williams said he thought about that Kentucky game a year ago because of the poor effort. McCants said he didn't give it a thought. But May didn't seem to buy that, saying he knew that McCants was thinking about that game by the way he was acting before the game. He was serious, very serious, in his approach to the game. He came out early and torched Kentucky. He said it was to make a statement after the season-opening loss to Santa Clara. But the Tar Heels already took care of that by winning the Maui Invitational after the loss to the Broncos.
The difference from a year ago to now is not even close for the Kentucky coaches. They didn't even recognize McCants.
"It's night and day," Kentucky assistant coach David Hobbs said. "He's so much more confident. We got him rattled a bit and got him frustrated. We were also able to keep the ball off him. But he's not forcing things this year."
Hobbs said that if the play wasn't open for McCants a year ago, then he would try to create on his own instead of letting the ball come back to him within the offense the way he did Saturday. He added that McCants is able to stretch out the defense with his deep range and that forces teams to always find him.
"He's a handful when he's got the ball," Hobbs said. "He moves so much more efficiently without the ball. A year ago, if we cut the ball off to him, then he would just saunter around and let us do it. But he was able to stay in the flow much better. He seems like he's matured a bit to me."
Boy, that's the truth.
Williams said McCants didn't shoot the ball well in Friday's practice. But McCants laughed that off and said he thought he did OK. He said he wasn't worried because he knew if he didn't shoot as well in practice, he would be fine in the game.
McCants is backing up his words with his production so far in every game. And he's easily the most feared offensive player in the game this season. Sure, there are times, Williams said, that he could hold onto the ball too long and lose the opening. He said McCants is much better when he catches and shoots or decides to use his first step and create right away.
"He has the ability to score as well as anybody I've ever coached as a perimeter player," Williams said.
McCants isn't automatic just yet, considering he did miss eight shots Saturday. But he makes his teammates feel as comfortable as they could with him on the perimeter. If he keeps this up, McCants won't only be the top offensive player in the country but also will be a strong candidate for national player of the year.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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