It's a little surprising the 2005-06 Carolina basketball team photo still fits on the Smith Center concourse, what with the halos around the heads of all the players.
In our memories, it's become that type of team. Roy Williams recently called that season-when the Tar Heels lost virtually everything except the argyle from the 2005 national champions-"the most fun I've ever had in coaching."
I was fortunate enough to be around that team quite a bit. I remember the loss to Illinois at the Smith Center, which was the game that provided the first glimpse into what the 2006 Tar Heels could be. I remember some incredible road wins, especially for a young team, that included victories at snake pits like Maryland, NC State, Florida State and Kentucky.
And we all remember, some of us probably in disturbing detail, with more clarity than the birthdates of some of our closest family members, the 83-76 win at Duke to close the regular season. How big was it? I didn't even have to look up the score. It was that kind of game. You remember: Tyler's three-pointer, Bobby's grin at the free throw line, and JJ and Shelden's ruined senior day.
Man, it was great.
But you know what wasn't so great? Those games we've all forgotten-the games that are an integral part of a young team being, well, young. A dud of a loss to a bad Southern Cal team. Home losses to Miami and Boston College.
And, most relevantly, being tied, 46-46, with Gardner-Webb at halftime of the season opener at the Smith Center. The Bulldogs finished 17-12 that season and did not make the NCAA Tournament. The game was tied with 11 seconds left.
David Noel bailed out the Tar Heels, as he often did that season, with a three-pointer that bounced around the rim ("The ball hit every side of the rim," as Williams put it on Thursday) and finally fell through with 1.8 seconds left. On that particular night, even the game-winners weren't easy.
"It looks like the omission from the top 25 was justified," sniffed the Associated Press story about the Tar Heels after the game.
That's not to say that Randy Young and his hard-working Smith Center maintenance crew should loosen a screw or two on the second-half home rim before tomorrow night's 7 p.m. season tipoff. It's just a reminder that young teams sometimes play, well, young. And the Tar Heels will start the youngest of the young, rookie Marcus Paige, at point guard tomorrow night, and they're likely to add at least one more freshman to the starting lineup.
"I feel fairly comfortable about Marcus, Dexter (Strickland), Reggie (Bullock) and James Michael (McAdoo)," Williams said Thursday afternoon. "The fifth starter, I change from one day to the next quite a bit...As we stand here right now, I still don't know who we will start."
Assuming that, perhaps, Joel James or Brice Johnson wiggles his way into tomorrow night's starting lineup, it will be just the third time in the Williams era that Carolina has started multiple freshmen on opening night (the others are Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington against Sacred Heart in 2006-07, and Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard and Frasor against Gardner-Webb in 2005-06).
Tomorrow night, the freshmen will most certainly be nervous. They are very likely to also be alternately dazzling and average, sometimes on the same possession.
"We know we're a young team and sometimes it's not going to go the way we want it to go," said Leslie McDonald. "We're going to keep trying our best and do our best for the team."
But freshmen have their maddening moments, and every time you remember the glory of the 2006 squad, you have to also remember that they also could rely on one of the best players in the history of the program to bail them out and get a basket when it was most needed. That group even had the luxury of a preseason trip to the Bahamas, during which you first began to suspect that Tyler Hansbrough had the chance to be a fairly decent player, at least as long as the opponents continued to arrive for the game in the back of a pickup truck.
There is no Hansbrough--at least as far as we know, which is one of the fun things about a new season--on this team, and young players will inevitably do things that make you shake your head. In that 2005 game against Gardner-Webb, the Tar Heels missed three important free throws in the final minute to keep the Bulldogs in the game. At some point between now and April, that's going to happen again. But keep in mind that one of the offending free throw culprits, Frasor, was exactly the player you wanted at the line by the time the Tar Heels traveled over to Cameron Indoor Stadium four months later.
The advantage for this year's team, though, is that they are not entirely raw. McAdoo was a key player in the NCAA Tournament last year. Strickland has played significant minutes for three seasons. Bullock was one of the most indispensable players in 2012.
None of the current Tar Heels, though, have ever had to be the player college opponents circle on the scouting report. They will also have to rely on leadership from players who have never had to lead before, which is the same thing you could've said about David Noel and the 2005-06 club. As Williams said, it wasn't until Noel's game-winner finally found the bottom of the net against Gardner-Webb that the Durham native definitively became the leader of that team.
"So far, it's been a team that has been led by the group," Williams said. "Dexter and Reggie and Leslie have been around the longest. Marcus has leadership capabilities and the position he plays helps. The two who have the most respect for everyone on the team are Reggie and James Michael. Right now it's been a shared responsibility."