The Fresh Princes
A look back at the ’02-03 UNC Tar Heels
Though Rashad compares Ray to Baron Davis for his paralleled skills in playmaking and shot making, many of his granite game’s other ingredients (rebounding, hyena-like defense) go ignored. Through late January, he was averaging 10.5 ppg, 6.8 apg, 4.7 rpg and nearly 2 spg. But one thing’s for sure—everyone who knows Ray knows his most valuable hat is the leader cap. Before Raymond set the South Carolina state scoring record, he was a high school QB. There was no better position on the field for him. As a child he always played basketball against bigger and better: his father, his father’s friends, whoever, as long as they weren’t his age. This is why upperclassmen get puzzled when Felton the frosh steps onto the court and talks down to them. Just a few months into his collegiate career, Felton has been called both “arrogant” and “cocky” by opposing players. “I’m not necessarily arrogant or cocky,” says Felton, beginning to orientate himself. “I’m just a leader who feels nobody could stay in front of him, that he could beat his guy at any time.”
But Felton knows no point can fully exhibit their full arsenal without a trusty big man. Ray loves his center’s averages of 12 ppg, 9 rpg, 2 spg and 2 bpg as much as Sean loves playing with Ray. “He really helps the guards because he’s a great scorer down low,” Felton says. “They also gotta worry about us on the outside too, so it just makes things open for us.”
“I think he’s the best big man in the country,” McCants declares. “He’s just playing the wrong position. If he was a power forward, nobody could stop him.”
Even the smallest of bball brains know that a talented nest of players who appreciate—and even are fond of—each others’ strengths can build a dangerous cohesiveness. But the love runs even deeper for May. See, Sean’s father is Scott May, the National College Player of the Year in 1976. With Sean’s father’s history and his older brother, Scott Jr. having been on the IU team that made it to last year’s national title game, Sean’s collegiate fate appeared sealed. So when Sean decided to leave the Hoosier state for Chapel Hill, it wasn’t your typical understanding-family-being-supportive scenario.
“My father was hurt about it at first,” May says. “But once Coach Knight left he was kinda up to whatever I wanted to do…but it’s still hard on them. My brother wanted me to go there just so that I could be close to him, but I told him, I gotta do what’s good for me, and coming out here was the best thing I ever did.”
Ask May why he would disappoint his family and friends by choosing Carolina over Indy, he’s more than happy to give a straight-up answer: “The main reason was Raymond and Rashad.”
Exactly one month removed from that win over Kansas, the Heels are back in Madison Square Garden. It’s the first round of the ECAC Holiday Festival and on this visit to NYC, the Tar Heels find themselves on the other side of the coin. This time their opponent, Iona, is the underdog. But like Carolina was against KU, Iona ain’t having it. At halftime, it’s tied at 27 and the underdog collar switches necks. See, the Heels are fighting through some turbulence. Right after their Kansas and Stanford wins, a 25th-ranked Illinois team exposed the Heel trio’s inexperience by spanking Carolina 92-65 at Assembly Hall before Kentucky got to pop them, 98-81, at Chapel Hill. They’ve dropped to No. 22 on the charts.
UNC’s great start became the gift and the curse. “I didn’t want it to be so overbearing as far as everybody having huge expectations,” says McCants. “With us going 5-0, then having to go play Illinois and Kentucky, after those two losses it’s like, ‘Are they this good?’ That’s what we was scared of coming out of the Kansas game. We just got to build it back up.”
Felton is sticking to his guns. He said he didn’t feel any pressure at the beginning of the season, didn’t feel any after winning two big games, and isn’t about to start feeling it after losing two big ones. “It didn’t bring pressure. It just made teams come at us more. But we’re North Carolina, teams gonna come at us hard anyway. It just made them come at us harder.”
Adding insult to injury with an injury, an already fragile bone in May’s left foot popped during the first half of the Iona bout.
May’s likely out until mid-February. And the final score: UNC 56…Iona 65.
If you wanna know how big a loss Sean is, just ask Ray. It’s enough to make even the cocksure general sound a tad vulnerable. “Now teams just pack the inside so that me, Rashad, and [sophomores] Jackie [Manuel] or Jawad [Williams] can’t drive. We got great post guys down low, but Sean is just a better scorer.”
Trust, if confidence like Ray’s gets rattled, there’s valid reason. The next four games saw the Heels go 2-2. ACC rival Virginia capitalized on UNC’s hard-boiled-egg offense (hard outside, soft inside) en route to a 79-72 win. This would’ve definitely been a different game had May been healthy. While McCants and Felton endure grueling games without their star center, Sean sits helpless on the bench with a steel screw in his foot and a bionic-looking protective boot that reaches about two inches below his knee, which can only be removed when he sleeps. Sean says he’s been taught a painful lesson while confined to the bench. “Just how much we take for granted, how much I take for granted,” he says. “I didn’t take every day like it was my last, and sitting there knowing I’m not going to be able to play for eight weeks, it’s hard. You know, I joke with the guys like I’d be out there killing, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Back at the Dean Dome, UNC’s about to tip against a tough, thick-middled, 10-1 Clemson team. Felton scores the first basket, McCants the second and third. Carolina jumps out to a 13-4 lead. The Ram’s willin’, the Tar Pit’s poppin’ and it’s looking as if the Carolina kids have gotten the mojo back for their team. But of course, kids have to take the hard way. After getting out-rebounded 20-13 and allowing the Tigers to shoot 52 percent from the floor, Carolina finds itself tied by intermission.
McCants finds himself on the bench for the majority of the second half with four fouls. He re-enters with Carolina down four and seven minutes remaining, then puts on a Superman performance scoring eight straight buckets, finishing the half with 12 and willing his squad to a 68-66 dub. The following game, UNC hosts No. 6 UConn and once again claws their way to a colossal victory. McCants goes for 27, and Felton collects 11 points and drops 7 dimes.
Whether Rashad, Sean and Ray are fronting or really don’t feel any pressure doesn’t matter. You won’t catch Doherty pulling out grays to figure out the root. He’s just happy to be here. Whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing like freshmen. They even lose like upperclassmen, chalking up mistakes as lessons not to be taught again. It should have the rest of the NCAA frightened. If these kids are playing beyond their years now, then what happens…
“I feel ‘freshman’ is an understatement for players who come in and turn programs around,” McCants states. “Carmelo Anthony, Matt Walsh, etc. All those guys who turned their programs around, they not playing like freshmen. They playing like seniors, juniors. They aren’t worried about labels.”