Last night, while watching Wake Forest sophomore point guard Jeff Teague drive the ball into the teeth of the North Carolina defense on his way to yet another score on a 34-point night, one thought kept coming up in my mind: This has to make it official. The freshman class of 2007 (that is, the crop of first-year players that arrived on college campuses in the fall of 2007) simply has to be the greatest such class in the history of the sport. Just look at last year's draft: Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless and so on. Now add this year's sophomores: Blake Griffin, James Harden, Gani Lawal, Patrick Patterson and, most especially, Jeff Teague. How are you going to compete with that group?
Teague did his classmates proud last night. His explosion of points wasn't merely the product of freakishly hot shooting from beyond the arc (though he did make 3-of-4 threes). No, he got his points in old-school fashion, breaking down a once-proud defense repeatedly off the dribble. Teague is listed as a point guard, but it might be more accurate to refer to him as what my NBA-savvy colleague Kevin Pelton has termed an "initiator," the player who has the ball in his hands more often than any of his teammates because he's able to score, make the right pass and, most crucially, knows when to do which.
What Teague initiated last night was a win. He hit nine of 17 shots and went to the line 15 times. He also, of course, made the highlight reel with that beautiful pass off the dribble to Al-Farouq Aminu for a dunk. Chas McFarland also had a good night for Dino Gaudio (20 points on 7-of-10 shooting) but to a large extent Wake's offense was a Teague triumph and not a team-wide onslaught. Bear in mind the Deacons needed 88 possessions and 39 free throw attempts to get those 92 points.
The striking thing about this game, then, was not that Wake Forest was some kind of unstoppable force on offense, but rather that there was no point at which the much more experienced and highly decorated North Carolina team gave one the sense that they were in control of the situation. It was said going into this game that the Deacons would prove to be the equals of the Heels in athleticism. True enough--and, man, did that make for one outstanding game to watch. What we didn't know, however, is that Gaudio's team would be UNC's equal in execution and tenacity.
Granted, it would be wrong for Wake Forest to make too much of what was, after all, a three-point home win. In strictly basketball terms, Boston College accomplished the greater feat, winning in Chapel Hill. Then again, I don't envision the Deacons losing to Harvard anytime soon. Not to mention Teague did more than just have a great night. He had a great night that will rightly call attention to what's been a superb year, one that's included too many turnovers, yes, but has also showcased outstanding shooting on his frequent twos (53 percent), infrequent threes (54 percent) and quite frequent free throws (84 percent). Breakthrough year, indeed.
As for North Carolina, until seven days ago the Tar Heels were thought in some quarters to be perhaps the best team this decade. Now they're 0-2 in the ACC. What happened?
One thing you can remove from the discussion entirely is rebounding, on both ends of the court. The Heels have been fine on the glass in their two losses--indeed they were actually outstanding on the offensive glass against both Boston College and Wake.
Pretty much everything else has changed, however, and one good place to start might be the number of free throws that winning teams are shooting against UNC. I've already noted that BC's Tyrese Rice was the first player this season to score as many points from the line in a particular game as did Tyler Hansbrough. Last night Teague did Rice one better, actually outscoring Hansbrough from the line, 13-11. (I know, I never thought I'd see the day the ACC allowed that, either.) Also note that opponent turnovers have nosedived, with the Eagles and the Deacons combining to give the ball away on just 17 percent of their possessions.
Lastly, the Heels have struggled on offense in their two losses--or at least they would have if not for phenomenal offensive rebounding and their usual knack for getting free throws. Their shooting from the field, however, has been wretched, most notably their 40 percent two-point shooting.
In short, a lot has changed for the Tar Heels since the calendar flipped over to 2009. Sure, some of those things are probably somewhat related (UNC's two-point shooting and opponents' turnovers, for example). Suffice it to say, however, there's no one player or one issue that Roy Williams can bench or address to make everything all better.
Carolina will of course "recover," if that's even the correct term for a team that will win 30+ games, but they've lost something hard-won in just seven days: Their air of invincibility.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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