Once there was a coach named Dean Smith and he was almost always right. And on the times he was wrong, I don't want to be right.
You can sort through Carolina's 79-73 win over 20th-ranked UNLV in dozens of ways, because it was one of those games where everyone in the box score did something to help the team win.
But if you really want to know what happened, if you only have time to read one phrase, this is it: Dean Smith was right again.
You can picture him, can't you, waving his hands as if to deflect this compliment. It was Leslie, he would say, or it was Marcus, or it was P.J. Then, he would find someone else who no one else had mentioned, and he would say, "You know, Desmond really had a nice game."
Among other things Smith said, he had a simple maxim: A team can overcome the loss of a key player for one game, because everyone else will raise their level of play. That's what happened when Carolina played without J.R. Reid and Steve Bucknall in the 1987-88 season opener against Syracuse and still won the game. It's what happened in 1989, when Carolina played without Jeff Lebo at Cameron Indoor Stadium and still won the game. And it's what happened Saturday, when Carolina played without Reggie Bullock--the player who "has probably been playing better than anyone on our team," according to Roy Williams--and still won the game.
Smith was correct in 1989. And he was still correct in 2012, nearly 25 years later. You know what? Here's guessing he'll still be right in 2037.
It's more than just simple one-liners about basketball. Smith was right about the whole philosophy of building a program. He believes it's about building a family and making Chapel Hill a place where people want to return again and again.
Which is the only possible way that Matt Doherty and Melvin Scott could be seated, side-by-side, behind the Tar Heel bench. The stories those two could tell about each other could melt the internet. But there they were, Doherty receiving a warm round of applause when he was shown on the Smith Center video board.
You have to imagine that it felt incredibly good for Doherty, who has had a challenging relationship with his alma mater since he left the head coach's office in 2003. Put yourself in his position: it can't be easy. But sooner or later, they always come back, because it feels like home to them, and because time has a convenient way of massaging the bad memories into the background.
Players want to be part of that environment, which is why the Smith Center rafters are decorated with all those banners.
"In pregame warmups, it's hard not to look up there," says Marcus Paige. "I've been here for months, and I still do it. So I can't imagine other teams coming in here and not feeling a little shock and awe."
They do. The new pre-starting lineup video played on the arena video boards includes a healthy dose of Carolina history, with everyone from Rosenbluth to Jordan to Stackhouse to Carter to Hansbrough. With the arena lights dimmed and the PA blaring, there was little UNLV could do except stand in front of their bench and watch the video. When, on the video board, Jerry Stackhouse drove the baseline at Cameron Indoor and dunked on two Blue Devils, one Rebel nudged another. You could almost see the thought bubbles above their heads: "Oh yeah. We're playing those guys."
I know you will say that the Smith Center can be quiet. And I know you will say that the Smith Center is too big. Both of those things are true. But at the same time I accept those things, you have to accept this one: for the games that matter, the Smith Center still makes a difference. It starts with the banners and the videos and the overwhelming size of the place. But it includes the people, too, the 20,888 fans who showed up on a Saturday afternoon and seemed to inherently know when the Tar Heels needed a stop, or when they needed a basket, or simply when they needed a little push.
Carolina fans are spoiled because they have seen so much good basketball. But Carolina fans are also savvy because they have seen so much good basketball. They know how it is supposed to be played, what the little plays are that make a difference.
There were early signs that this was a different Tar Heel team. Leslie McDonald played simple, hard-nosed defense on Mike Moeser early in the first half--making him uncomfortable, getting up into him on the sideline in front of the UNC bench and forcing him to give up the ball with no space at all--and Roy Williams responded like McDonald had just hit a game-winning shot. That was the team Williams has been begging for over the last two months. That was, to use the phrase the head coach himself has said frequently, "buying in." The crowd felt it, too, and lavished applause on plays like P.J. Hairston going three rows deep to try and corral a loose ball.
All that energy might have helped the most unexpected Tar Heel of all, Desmond Hubert, suddenly become, well, he became just a little bit ferocious. Hubert is the player who strength coach Jonas Sahratian constantly pleads with to "get mad at the weights" during workouts. He is unfailingly polite and friendly.
Saturday, he was also a little mean. He blocked the first field goal attempt of the day by UNLV's outstanding freshman, Anthony Bennett. Later in the half, Bennett threw down an authoritative dunk. It was tough to tell who he had dunked on.
"No it wasn't," Hubert said. "That was me."
Bennett was very pleased with this particular play. "On the way back down the court, he was saying some words I won't say right now," Hubert said. "He was talking a little trash."
Smith once told his teams, "A lion never roars after the kill." This lion was roaring. It's just that there hadn't been a kill yet.
We have seen this happen before this year, and Hubert has backed down. This time, he didn't. Paige penetrated and found the sophomore just outside the top of the charge/block circle. There was only Bennett between Hubert and the goal, and Hubert did just what would make Sahratian happy: he got mad at the weights. Unexpectedly, and suddenly, he put the ball in his right hand and he went to the rim with some ill intentions. So unforeseen was this particular move--Desmond Hubert trying to dunk on Anthony Bennett?--that the crowd gave an audible, "Whoooaaaa."
He didn't make it. He almost didn't have to. Getting fouled was plenty good enough.
"My mindset right then was that if I got close to the rim, I was going to try to tear it down," said the mild-mannered big man. Really. Desmond Hubert said that.
Bennett was central in several of the game's biggest plays. With 8:40 left, the Rebels had closed to 62-61. Bennett had just dunked again, this time a one-handed thunder job on Brice Johnson. After Hairston missed a jumper, UNLV secured the rebound, pushed the tempo, and...oh no. There was Bennett again, filling the lane and receiving a bullet pass from Katin Reinhardt near the white "ACC" letters in the paint.
This was going to end poorly. Does UNLV really have to take the lead like, like this? With yet another Bennett dunk?
But there was Hairston, who had run back on defense and was standing, both feet planted firmly outside that charge/block circle. And here came Anthony Bennett, listed in your program at 6-foot-8 and an optimistic 240 pounds. Then...
"Honestly, I closed my eyes," Hairston said. "I've seen him play in high school, so I know how athletic he is. I closed my eyes and put my hands straight up and didn't watch what was going to happen next."
"That's a lot of man," Hairston said, grinning. "I opened my eyes and I was on my back. My chest was throbbing so I thought, 'Good, I'm still here.'"
Everyone who has ever worn blue, from Bobby Jones to Steve Hale to George Lynch, knows what it means to stick your nose into the middle of that play. It causes a bruise and hurts in the morning and feels...just a little bit great, especially when the coaches rewind the film and show your teammates how you sacrificed yourself for the team.
The game stayed tight over the final eight minutes. With no Reggie Bullock, Carolina needed someone to control the game, someone to exert some leadership. This is one way the game has changed. In Smith's era, it would have been some wise old senior point guard, and certainly Dexter Strickland was essential (including a timely basket with 1:33 left that salvaged what looked like might have been a disastrous possession). But it was also a freshman, Paige, who was indispensable.
When Johnson was frustrated after committing a foul with five minutes left, it was Paige who huddled his team inside the paint (you know who invented that, right?) and gave Johnson a friendly smack on the back of the head to get him settled. The result? The refocused Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on the very next possession.
Paige backed it up with the ball, too, hitting a pair of one-and-one front ends and going 5-for-6 from the line over the game's final 9:30. With 6:30 left and the shot clock dripping away, he also found time to take Reinhardt one-on-one, dribbling with his right hand down the right side, getting just enough of a seal from James Michael McAdoo, and dropping in a left-handed floater as he sailed past the backboard and beyond the baseline.
Paige had just turned four years old when Smith retired. But, as he put it, "I've read a couple books."
"I've always been a Tar Heel fan," Paige said. "I'm aware of the great things Dean Smith did here. I always think of the 1982 championship team, and my favorite team ever was that early Ed Cota team the last year Coach Smith coached [He's exactly right--Smith's last year was 1996-97, with Cota and Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter]. When you look up in the rafters here, Coach Smith has a lot to do with that."
So, Marcus, what of this Coach Smith maxim about a team missing a key player for one game?
"You could see it today with the way we had balance," Paige said. "Not having Reggie might have even helped our sense of urgency. We knew we didn't have Reggie, and that's one of our best players and best defenders. That made everyone realize they needed to accept the challenge of playing their man and stopping their man. So I'd say he was right."