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August 20, 2011Eight weeks. That's it.
Only eight weeks remain until practice officially begins for the 2011-12 college basketball season.
So with the summer drawing to a close, classes about to resume at North Carolina, and with "Late Night with Roy" festivities not all that far off in Chapel Hill, I'm combing through my notebooks to find the four most compelling summer quotes that set the stage for the Tar Heels' upcoming season.
"I feel I've come a long way with my overall maturity. I know what to expect. I know what to train for. I know I need to get my body right. I know what kinds of shots to practice. It's one thing to just go to the gym and get up a bunch of shots. Now it's knowing what shots to shoot, how to shoot them, what areas to score in. That continuity is key." - Wing Harrison Barnes
Coming soon to a grocery story near you: dozens of magazines with Harrison Barnes' picture on the cover.
Make no mistake, if Barnes thought he entered last season with great expectations, pegged as a preseason AP All-American before even taking his first college dribble, this season he will be one of college basketball's poster boys, hyped as a National Player of the Year candidate and the star of one of the country's best teams.
Barnes, however, feels far more prepared for the big stage entering his sophomore season. And he's taken his otherworldly focus and channeled it in all the right directions. That national title so many UNC fans are hoping for? Barnes realizes that achievement in impossible to complete until April 2. So why spend an excess of time thinking about that now.
"The biggest thing for us is to reach our potential," Barnes told me back in June. "People ask me all the time whether I want to go undefeated or make the Final Four or win a national championship. All that is important and those are all dreams of ours. But I think that starts with maximizing potential. And that starts with guys sacrificing egos, everybody putting in as much time as they can to play up to their ability. That's the thing you can take care of on a day-to-day basis and then at the end of the season, you'll be in position to accomplish all those other things. But if you make getting to the Final Four the biggest priority on your mind, it sets things up with far more of a pressure mentality instead of reminding yourself to take all the little steps it takes to get there."
The little steps. Like working out religiously in the offseason. Like putting in added time not just to head to the gym and hoist hundreds of shots, but to practice the right shots, the ones he'll likely get in games.
Barnes often likes to joke that the greatest defense he ever faced was that of Barton College, whom UNC played in their exhibition opener in 2010. Barnes says he wasn't prepared for a Division II team to have so much talent and to play with such feistiness. That led to a sobering debut for Barnes, who shot 2-for-9 and committed six turnovers that night. Call it freshman orientation.
As a sophomore, Barnes feels far more settled and assured of how his game fits with this team. His drive to make this team great will be obvious from Day One.
"Pressure makes diamonds." - Point guard Kendall Marshall
In August 2010, Kendall Marshall was still very much feeling his way around. He was a talented yet still green point guard trying to blend in as a back-up to Larry Drew II at UNC.
Marshall experienced many growing pains while learning the finer points of Roy Williams' offensive system last summer.
In August 2011? Marshall is confident and eager and ready to become a galvanizing leader for a Tar Heels team with big dreams. Yes, the sophomore floor general understands the hype and pressure that will soon engulf the Heels as they head for 2011-12 as obvious national championship frontrunners.
But Marshall embraces the pressure and the weighty responsibility he will hold as one of this team's main men. After all, in his words, pressure makes diamonds.
There's so much to love about Marshall's approach. Not only is he a fan favorite. But, more importantly, he's loved by his teammates, who feel heightened confidence themselves when playing with the left-handed point guard.
As Tyler Zeller noted earlier this summer, "I can't say enough about Kendall's ability to spread the ball around. He understands if somebody hasn't touched the ball in a while how to get them a shot. If somebody has hit a lot of shots, he knows to go back to them. He does a great job knowing who to get a shot, where to get them that shot and then understanding exactly where the person wants the ball. "
In 2005, UNC won a national title thanks in big part to the toughness and ferocity that Raymond Felton played with. In 2008-09, Ty Lawson was the most valuable player on a Tar Heel team loaded with talent. Now, as UNC heads for 2011-12, Marshall wants to join the fraternity of legendary Carolina point guards. And he'll have every opportunity to do so.
Depth at the point is an issue for UNC. With no true back-up behind Marshall, junior Dexter Strickland and freshman Stilman White will help carry the load at the point. But no one will be surprised if Marshall ends up playing upwards of 34 or 35 minutes every night out. Understanding that added workload, Marshall has spent much of his summer getting stronger and more durable under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian.
He's also done his best to sharpen his jump shot, hoping to round out his game to put even more pressure on opposing defenses. To make a long story short, Marshall understands next season can be special for UNC. He understands he'll play a huge role in the final outcome. And he's used the last four months to prepare himself accordingly.
"They've got great potential. But I'll tell you this. They should be humble. Because we've been whipping up on them every day. So they know they have a ways to go. It's not like they've spent the whole summer winning. They claim we're old. And I know we're getting older, but we played a seven-game series with them and the old guys won 7-0. I'm telling you, 7-0. That's all they need to know." - Former Tar Heel Jawad Williams
Ah, yes. Those legendary summer pick-up games in Chapel Hill. They're not just for Smith Center bragging rights. The byproduct of the often heated showdowns is that current players get to learn a lot from former players. And one of the lessons that always gets passed on is that no matter how good you are as a college player, you are still a long way from being a grown man.
So this summer, former Heels like Jawad Williams and Felton, David Noel and Jackie Manuel, Marvin Williams and Sean May, have given the current Carolina kids a lesson in humility.
One trap the 2011-12 Tar Heels will have to avoid is a feeling of overconfidence. After the summer pick-up action, Jawad Williams believes the younger players are in far less danger of stumbling into that trap.
"We have a chance to be really, really good but that doesn't mean that you're going to win in the end. (Last) year, four No. 1 seeds did not make the Final Four, four No. 2 seeds did not make the Final Four. Only one No. 3 seed made the Final Four. It's the way our game is set up, it's not the best of 3, best of 5 or best of 7 where usually the best team wins. If I'm advising the Carolina people I'm going to say: 'Look forward to it. Enjoy every day. Enjoy every game. If some good things keep happening at the end of the year, enjoy it even more.'" - coach Roy Williams
This has always been Williams' credo with mega-talented teams of his that not only have a chance to win it all, but also carry the outside expectation that they undoubtedly will. So Williams' message to the fans is simple. Worry about March and April when March and April get here. In the meantime, appreciate the star-studded team Carolina is about to put on the floor and enjoy the growth this squad is likely to make.
I've said it repeatedly for two years now. One of the greatest strengths of the 2008-09 Tar Heels was their ability to live in the moment. That team carried great perspective all the way throughout the season. They processed wins and losses with maturity and did a wonderful job of not overreacting to either.
That bunch took the goal of winning championships very seriously but never took themselves too seriously during the pursuit. That's a special quality for a team to have.
No one knows better than Williams that great teams don't always win their final game. At least three times per season, the Hall of Fame coach finds himself reflecting back on some of his greatest heartbreaks, recalling when some of the best teams he was ever affiliated with didn't reach the mountaintop.
That includes the 1983-84 Tar Heels led by Michael Jordan and coached by Dean Smith. That includes the 1996-97 Kansas Jayhawks, who spent the final 15 weeks of that season ranked No. 1 only to fall in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
Heck, that even includes the 2007-08 Heels, who set a school record for wins and made it to the Final Four yet ended the season with an embarrassing and crushing loss to Kansas.
Look, a trip to New Orleans for the 2012 Final Four may seem likely. But it's not guaranteed. And if that's the only focus for the players and the fans, the season immediately sets up to potentially be a colossal disappointment rather than an exhilarating joyride.
Again, perspective is key.