The Flexible Freshmen
by Dan Hauptman
They used to not be able to play on the team. Up until 1972, freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball. The highest level they could play college basketball was junior varsity. That is not the case today, and nowhere is that trend more apparent than at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
This year’s University of North Carolina men’s basketball team will rely heavily on four freshmen. Three of them are true freshmen (Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott) and the fourth (Neil Fingleton) is a sophomore academically but considered a red-shirt freshman in the basketball arena. This number is exorbitantly high for a legendary school such as North Carolina, and the quartet will likely be the key to the success or failure of this year’s Tar Heel squad.
The four newcomers will have to be able to blend in with the returning starters (Jason Capel and Kris Lang) as well as fill the huge void left by the departures of many marquee players from last year’s 26-7 team. The highest scorer (Joseph Forte), top rebounder (Brendan Haywood), assist leader (Ronald Curry), best shot blocker (Haywood), and key sixth man (Julius Peppers) from the 2000-2001 Carolina team will probably all be absent this year. The burden from this collective loss will undoubtedly fall on the shoulders of the players brought in to replace them, the freshmen.
Fortunately for Coach Matt Doherty and the Tar Heels, this rookie class appears to be talented and prepared to handle the enormous challenge ahead. The three true freshmen were in the top echelon of the 2001 recruiting class, while Fingleton was selected to the 2000 McDonald’s All-America team. “I’m excited about the three freshmen,” Doherty said about Scott, Manuel and Williams. “They have versatility and can pass, handle and shoot. They can guard with good quickness and long arms. They also are good kids.” Doherty said about Fingleton’s return from back surgery, “I think Neil will be a very good basketball player. He will certainly have a chance to play. The more in shape he is, the better player he will be.”
The most ballyhooed Carolina incoming freshman is Jawad Williams. The 2001 McDonald’s All-American was a top-ten prospect according to many recruiting publications. Williams, a 6-9 forward from Lakewood, Ohio, started the season opener for the Tar Heels. “Jawad Williams is one of the most athletic guys I have ever seen,” said Jason Capel, who started as a freshman on the 1998-1999 squad. “He’s going to bring a lot of versatility. With a front line of Jawad, Kris and myself there are lot of interchangeable parts and a lot of mismatch problems that we can take advantage of.”
The other two true freshmen reside in the UNC backcourt. Guards Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel were also in the upper tier of the 2001 recruiting class. Scott, 6-2 from Baltimore, Maryland, will probably play point guard during his stay in Chapel Hill. Manuel, 6-6 from West Palm Beach, Florida, is expected to compete for the starting shooting guard position for Carolina this season. “Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott always wanted to come to Carolina,” Doherty said. “They are a great fit because they can play a number of positions and give us some flexibility.”
Although Neil Fingleton spent last season practicing with the varsity team and blocking the view of fans while sitting on the bench, he is listed on the roster as a freshman. Due to Fingleton’s back surgery in the summer of 2000, he successfully received a medical red-shirt from the NCAA. The 7-foot-5 Durham, England native may play a lot of minutes at the center position behind Lang. “When I’m playing I just want to be big in the middle, contest shots, get rebounds, and when I get the ball just do something with it to contribute,” Fingleton said. “I worked hard this summer and I’m trying to get better each day. I just hope that I can show coach that I can play productive minutes.”
These four men will need to pick up the slack in order for North Carolina to extend its consecutive tournament appearance streak to 28. Points have to be scored, rebounds have to be grabbed, assists have to be dished, and leadership has to be exhibited by Williams, Scott, Manuel and Fingleton. The other players, the coaches, and all of the Tar Heel fans are relying on this group of players to grow up quickly in order to keep the UNC tournament streak growing as well.