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Can the Cougs overcome the fear factor?

Posted by Jeff Nusser on March 26, 2008

I’ve said since the beginning of this tournament that North Carolina might be the most beatable No. 1 seed in the Dance for the Cougs. A lot of people thought I was nuts (and I must admit, I’d probably rather be playing Memphis right about now), but nothing that happened in the first two rounds of the tournament has led me to believe that the Cougs can’t beat the Heels.

The question, though, is this: Do the players believe they can beat the Heels?

You would hope that the answer would be a resounding yes, but unfortunately, history this season suggests that it’s at least valid to ask the question.

It would stand to reason that a team full of seniors that has pretty much done and seen it all for four years wouldn’t be afraid of anyone. And for the vast majority of this season, they’ve played with a swagger that says they can beat anyone on any night. But there are three games sticking out like a plank in my eye that I just can’t ignore, leaving me wondering ever so slightly what team we’ll see take the floor tomorrow night.

In the first game against UCLA on Jan. 12, I saw an undefeated WSU team ranked No. 4 that clearly didn’t believe it was the fourth best team in the country. The Cougs played tentative and scared and were buried beneath a Bruins team hell-bent on proving that no way, no how was WSU a better team than U-C-frickin’-L-A. By the time they remembered they were a good team, even a ridiculous 3-point barrage couldn’t save the Cougs.

It wasn’t quite more of the same in the rematch, but the end result was identical. It was a one-point game with 7:40 to go, but as it turned to winning time, the Cougs fell apart. Over the next 3:15, a missed jumper and three consecutive turnovers allowed that lead to swell to 10. Trading baskets the rest of the way, the Cougs went meekly into the night.

Then, there was the gem that was the third contest against Stanford. This game was a little different because we had played Stanford close twice, only to be denied. The problem here is that the Cougs’ performances deteriorated with each successive game. In the first contest, they were a made layup away from forcing a second overtime. In the second game, they were well ahead at halftime before being obliterated by Brook Lopez and deciding they couldn’t get to the rim against twin 7-footers. The meltdown trifecta was complete in the third game, which was close for most of the first half but really wasn’t after.

The common thread between the three games is that the Cougs never really looked like they believed they could win any of them when it mattered. Despite the laser-locked focus of the first two rounds, that scares me a little, because tomorrow night, they’re going to take the floor against North Carolina.

The question is, will the Cougs believe they’re playing the North Carolina that is perfectly beatable on any given night, the one that lost to Maryland (not in the NCAA Tournament), Duke (no longer in the tournament) and nearly lost in the ACC Tournament to Virginia Tech (not in the tournament)?

Or will they approach the contest believing they’re playing not only the No. 1 team in the country, but also the mythical North Carolina:

  • The North Carolina that has won four championships and been to the Final Four 16 times;
  • The North Carolina that is plastered all over the television at least once a week;
  • The North Carolina that has put countless players in the NBA, including some guy named Jordan;
  • The North Carolina that people have been saying all week simply possesses too much talent to be phased by the Cougars’ inferior athletes and slow-down style of play.

Now, I absolutely believe the Cougs can hang with — and beat — the Heels. But if they come out and brick a few nervous jumpers, miss a layup or two and turn the ball over a few times to allow UNC to run out to a quick lead, I’ll know that they probably don’t. And by that point, we’ll be right where the Heels want us: Playing catch up with a team it’s nearly impossible to catch up to.

What it comes down to is whether the Cougs are ready to seize an opportunity on a grand stage to prove they belong. They missed that opportunity once. Let’s hope they learned from it, because now is when it obviously matters most.

We believe they can do it. Do they?

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9 Responses to “Can the Cougs overcome the fear factor?”

  1. Tim said

    In my not so expert opinion, it looks like they don’t really fear them. Healthy respect to be sure, but I think they have a “nothing to lose” attitude and are willing to lay it all on the line. Listening to the players and Coach Bennett in the various videos out there, that is the feeling I get. In case anyone is interested, here is the link to KHQ’s hour long special on the Cougars that aired early tonight. May not be up yet but it will.

    http://www.khq.com/global/story.asp?s=8068963

    p.s. It doesn’t work on Firefox.

  2. ChristianK said

    Nuss – I’d like to take the discussion in a different direction. Instead of being full of angst about the mental condition of the team or the status of Coach Bennett, we need to sit back and appreciate what may be the final game for Low, Weaver and Cowgill. We have one of the best young coaches in America and an awesome group of players that have been more successful than anyone would have guessed four years ago.

    The more impressive thing about the team is the unity, joy and passion that comes out on the court. They are very unselfish with the ball and look like they really enjoy what they are doing. Another impressive thing has been seeing Rochestie giving up his scholarship. Bennett is building the Cougs the right way, with character.

    I just want all Cougar fans to enjoy the moment.

  3. Jo-Jo said

    Christian, I agree with you in part. I don’t want to look at it as the last game for those players because I do believe they can win this game. If it is their last game, then I will enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed every other game they’ve played in their career.

    But I, for one, am someone who has said from the beginning of the Bennett era that this would be the result of this class of players. I did guess that we would be here four years ago, and i can only handle this underdog story so much. I believe that it is this mentality that leads to Nuss’ point about what this team believes about themselves. This is a good team. We should expect greatness from this team because they are capable of it.

    By all means, enjoy the moment. But what separates the big boys from the mediocre is not being satisfied. In my eyes this team has four more games to play. Only, however, if they can win tonight. That should be the mentality.

    I was there on that blistering day in August 1997 when the Cougs beat UCLA in Martin Stadium to start the Rose Bowl run. I was there the night that the basketball team out played number one Stanford only to be screwed by a bad call and a Matt Lotich prayer. Being a Coug puts you in the ultimate underdog position, terminally. But you don’t have to be owned by it. This institution has done great things before, and it is capable of doing something great tonight. For me, I’ll be greatful for those seniors when the season is over. But I will certainly not take that mentallity going into tonights game.

  4. Longball said

    We can do this. No matter the outcome tonight, this tourney has been a huge success, but we can do this. SO lets not sing the swan song quite yet. These guys could have one more surprise left in them.

  5. Longball said

    I am having those pre-game butterfiles in my stomach, but i am determined to savor them, for they could be my last of the season. I am having a little trouble digesting my doughnut. If this was a Cougar football Saturday i would have no problem with being on my 3rd or 4th or 10th beer by now to steady the nerves, but that must be a Fall-only thing ’cause i cant bring myself to do it this early.

    I think this may be the best Cougar team ever, in any sport, to be given NO CHANCE to win a game by anyone in the pundetsphere.

  6. Longball said

    Pass the tissues…

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/andy_staples/03/26/wazzu.rochestie/1.html

  7. bigcat97 said

    The team appears to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. I don’t think they have the fear you seem to imply. They are PLAYING THEIR BEST BALL OF THE SEASON – hands down. Earlier games you are correct that they did not play with the attitude of a #4 team. The two games in the NCAA have been played at a MUCH higher level than during the regular season.

    I’ve got a good feeling about today. This is going to be something very special.

  8. Ptowncoug said

    Knots in my stomach as well. Christian K, is that you from Yaki-Vegas?
    The one thing we got going for us, is that this may be their final game! The Cougs had something to lose, especially in that first matchup with UCLA and played like they did. Low, Weaver, Cowgill are not playing for anything tomorrow if they don’t win today. Leave it all on the floor.
    I think you will see an agressive team, but a team that is going to work diligently on the offensive side moving the ball around. For teams like Carolina, the first 5 minutes is crucial in avoiding TOs. They will be high energy, but will wear some if they are worked with constant movement and passing.

  9. Longball said

    Ptown, wish i could watch this one with ya! I am meeting Mr. Gecas for the game so there will be lots of explaining things like why they have to dribble when they move with the ball and why there is no tackling allowed.

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