SYRACUSE, N.Y.—No matter how many games you attend, your vantage point almost always determines what you see. Sit across from the benches, and you're going to be captivated by the interplay between coaches and players, the way the coaches work the officials, and the antics on the bench. Sit behind the benches near midcourt, and you'll notice the speed of the game, how fast things change from offense to defense—especially when Carolina is really playing well—and the split-second decisions required to make it all work.
But when you sit on the baseline, you get less of a sense of the speed of the game and more of a feeling of the power involved. And from that spot at the Carrier Dome on Saturday afternoon, it was readily apparent that Syracuse had significantly more ferocity around the basket than their visitors from Chapel Hill.
Give the Carrier Dome crowd credit. They'd prepared a festive welcome for their new conference brethren. Even with a noon tip-off, the crowd of 32,121 was not late arriving. The public address announcer introduced the Tar Heels as "one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball," like he was giving the ramp-up to a heavyweight fight.
It felt very much like Kenan Stadium the first couple of times Florida State visited Chapel Hill to play football. There was a newness and an excitement that won't be present ten years from now, but was palpable in the opening minutes. Blue and orange balloons cascaded down from the very distant 300 level when C.J. Fair scored the first Syracuse basket.
Ultimately, those opening minutes were the only part of the game when Carolina really competed with the nation's second-ranked team.
"Those first six, eight or ten minutes we were aggressive and involved," Roy Williams said. "After that, they were so much more aggressive and had so much more intensity than we did."
Now, sometimes "effort" and "intensity" are code words for something else, like the other team simply being better. But go back behind the basket and watch the battle under the rim. Any time—literally, any time—a ball bounced off the iron, it was swarmed by two or three long Syracuse arms. When a ball popped free near the sideline, other than one instance when Leslie McDonald dove on a ball near midcourt, there were those white Syracuse uniforms diving on it.
How little did Carolina want to play around the rim? The Tar Heels failed to draw enough fouls to get into the one-and-one in either half, the first time anyone could remember that happening in the Roy Williams era. Syracuse's starting five was whistled for a staggering three fouls in a combined 180 minutes of court time. Carolina's nine free throws attempted were the fewest since the Tar Heels shot just six in the blowout at Miami last year. Don't misunderstand that as a commentary on the officiating. On Saturday, the fouls that were committed were called, it's just that Carolina infrequently got the ball close enough to create any contact.
"They were more alert, more assertive and more intense," Williams said. "It seemed like every loose ball didn't just bounce their way, they went and got it."
Other than James Michael McAdoo, who contributed 15 points and nine rebounds and was a major factor in his 35 minutes, the Orange zone almost completely neutralized the Tar Heel post game. There simply was no room to operate inside, a frustrating reality for an area of the game that is supposed to be a strength this season.
Think about how poorly you perceive that Carolina shot on Saturday afternoon. You're right—the Tar Heels hit just 39.2 percent from the field. Now consider this: Syracuse actually shot worse, at 35 percent. They won the game not on the first shot, but on the second (and sometimes third) attempt.
"This was a defensive effort game," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose postgame press conference may still be going. "We got loose balls, we got on the floor, and we made a lot of really good hustle plays. That was the difference. We got a lot of extra possessions in this game and I thought that was really the difference."
In fact, the way Williams tracked it, those hustle plays created seven extra possessions in a game that Syracuse won by 12.
"Their want-to was the difference," McAdoo said. "At certain times there was a ball on the ground, and the better team is going to come up with that."
The loss leaves Carolina a full week to ponder being 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the second time in program history. But it also leaves them with a full week to ponder what should be the afternoon's most disturbing quote.
"They played harder than us," said J.P. Tokoto, who had eight rebounds in his 34 minutes.
That's a quote that should sting, no matter what your vantage point.
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.