Dreams of March

March. In like a lion out like a lamb. So they say, at least. And with the ushering in of spring, there’s rebirth, new life.

Much the same can be said for the the NCAA Tournament that’s become synonymous with the month of March. The parallels are eerie. Every school likes its chances right now. From mighty Villanova to the Bucknell Bison, all harbor hope. All have life. 

Whether we fully comprehend it or not, maybe this optimism comes from the melting snow, the sun’s radiance kissing a frozen landscape? Fresh shoots, young blooms. Ah, we rejoice in the rejuvenating nature of spring that [usually] accompanies Selection Sunday each year. So much promise. 

In essence, a la March, within the confines of these brackets, everybody’s a lion, stalking prey. Kings of the jungle, soaking up the regal position on the sport’s ultimate pedestal. Eyes still firmly on the prize.

After all, the hearts and minds of the nation will be wrapped up in a frenzy of hoops action. Did you really go with all four No. 1 seeds? Gonzaga’s not really going to reach the Final Four, are they? You mean you picked WHO to the Elite Eight!!??!? Middle Tennessee State? These questions circulate within the walls of office buildings, locker rooms of country clubs and family dinner tables.

Go Big Blue Nation! Rock chalk Jayhawks! Live it up, Dukies! Cheers, Carolina! March Madness – there’s nothing like it in sports.

But alas, ‘nothing gold can stay’, right, Robert Frost? These lions are about to be dethroned. Remember, out like a lamb? And yessir, one-by-one, we’ll pluck a lion and add another lamb unwillingly to the herd. In this kingdom, there’s room for only one to roar come April.


ACC OUTLOOK – No. 1 UNC (Final Four) / No. 2 Duke (Elite Eight) / No. 2 Louisville (Final Four) / No. 3 FSU (Sweet Sixteen) / No. 5 Notre Dame (Rd. of 32) / No. 5 UVA (Sweet Sixteen)

For every school lucky enough to strap on its dancing shoes this time of year, the dream lives on. For most, it’s a fleeting mirage. For some, it’s a dreadful nightmare. But for a select few, it’s a captivating all-night odyssey. The goal? To make that dream a reality.  

Sadly, for the vast majority, the ‘cutting down the nets’ scene never comes to pass. But that’s secondary. It’s the dream-maker who’s most appreciated. The fact that we are even inspired to dream at all is worth the price of admission. 

So thank you, March, for allowing these rapturous thoughts of wonder to race through our minds that for the lucky few, transform into indelible, everlasting memories. 

Follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes for sports reactions, physical therapy news and other snapshots of my life. 

Posted in March Madness, NCAA, NCAA Athletics, NCAA basketball, Picks, Tar Heel bball, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Storybook Ending for UNC?

This wasn’t exactly how it was supposed to go.

The preseason No. 1 Tar Heels were expected to cruise through the season, using their veteran experience to breeze by opponents with overwhelming offense and suffocating defense. Led by senior stalwart Marcus Paige, indeed, UNC was destined for greatness and a showering of accolades.

However, true to form for Carolina basketball in recent years, an up-and-down season ensued. Few exclamation points and a whole lot of question marks.

And here we are, the portion of the year where hopes and dreams are both realized and crushed.

Photo courtesy of bleacherreport.com

Yes, Saturday night in Durham provided a welcome break from the frustration and disappointment. But were the rowdy celebrations in a rival’s locker room really a sign of things to come?

Only the next few weeks within the confines of brackets will tell. And brackets haven’t proven friendly to the Tar Heels of late. Final Fours and ACC Tournament titles used to be a rite of passage for UNC players. But this group hasn’t cut down any sort of nets.

One thing is for sure – nobody wants it worse for them than Roy Williams.

An emotional Senior Night in the Smith Center saw UNC’s hall of fame coach profess his love for this group of Tar Heels, who’ve waded through an ugly NCAA investigation that still lingers to this day and failed to achieve anything to the level the Carolina basketball program is accustomed to.

In fact, Coach Williams says this may be his favorite team of all time. Heavy words, especially for a man who’s done a whole heck of a lot of winning and banner hanging in this sport.

But it’s not the winning part that’s won over Roy. No, it’s the character and attitude of his players, who he’s said on numerous occasions the past couple seasons, have provided his “salvation” through these trying times for the University and basketball team.

Resilience, commitment, and sportsmanship have been on display time and again from his boys.

In essence, they’ve kept Roy in the game, bad knees and all. Paige, Johnson, James and company have provided a bright spot, a sanctuary against the storm of negativity raging around their coach.

But is the storm abating at last? Everything is left to play for – a conference tournament banner, a Final Four berth, and yes, even a national championship.

So it’s time to wipe away the tears. No time for those. Carolina still has a chance to rewrite the story, even amidst a dark chapter in Carolina history.

Will there be a happy ending? There’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, the Tar Heels can still flip the script.

At 49-all midway through the second half against Duke, who would have given UNC a shot? We’d seen that movie before after all. Building a sizable lead only to surrender it in crunch time.

Photo courtesy of keepingitheel.com

But no, this time, UNC knocked down all eight of its final eight free throws and withstood a determined rally from a team used to stealing what they want from the Tar Heels. But not this time. Carolina wouldn’t allow it.

Despite the rivalry victory, though, the Tar Heels aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders. Problems persist.

However, what if Paige rediscovers his shooting touch? What if Johnson plays like an ACC Player of the Year down the stretch? What if Meeks toughens up inside? What if Hicks flies to the basket with relentless authority without fouling on the other end? A sight to see.

But with all the injuries, ‘toughness’ questions, shooting slumps, close losses, and scandal coverage these Tar Heel veterans have endured, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken comes to mind.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day! 

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. 


Will Frost’s final line ring true for these Tar Heels? Alas, fairy tales rarely come true.

But hey, step one is complete. An exorcism of demons in Cameron Indoor gave way to an ACC regular season title. Adversity has a way of making success taste sweeter.

And with any luck in March Madness, those Senior Night sobs may not be the last for UNC this season. Only this time – tears of joy.

Follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes

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Oakes’ Outlook: 2016 Sports Resolutions

With the turn of the calendar year, countless are busy setting forth 2016 initiatives – their vows to do better, correct the errors in their ways or strive for more in their lives.

But I have a hunch most of you aren’t interested in another rash of mundane personal resolutions reeking with cliché themes of fitness, diet, religion, family, relationships and careers.

And so, I’ll spare you.

Instead, I’m putting pen to paper to express what I hope to see play out over the sporting landscape over the next 12 months.

So here it goes, my ‘self-indulgent’ resolutions for each pillar of the sports world in 2016:

NBA – LeBron vs. Curry Finals Rematch

The two most dominant performers on the hardwood mono a mono one more time for all the marbles. Need I say more? The defending champion Golden State Warriors have been even more ruthless thus far this season led by one of the purest shooters the game has ever seen in N.C. product Stephen Curry. But I’m sure LeBron and the Cavaliers are salivating at a potential rematch, this time with a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at their disposal. Looking forward to seeing the June fireworks fly!

Photo courtesy of foxbusiness.com

College Hoops- Sweet Caroline!

What can I say? I’m a Tar Heel. And the ‘homer’ in me knows it’s been far too long since the Tar Heels have made a trip to the Final Four – a place UNC used to visit regularly. Oh what might have been sans the Kendall Marshall injury a few years back…but alas, it’s 2016. If Roy’s boys fully buy in defensively, a healthy Kennedy Meeks returns and Brice Johnson continues to channel his emotions in a positive manner, the Tar Heels, especially in a year with no dominant teams, could very well be cutting down the national title nets.

NFL- Panther Pride

It’s been an historic year for the Carolina Panthers. A 15-1 regular season record. The NFC’s No. 1 seed. Cam Newton likely MVP. Home field advantage throughout. Charlotte is going to be rocking this month as a city crawling with Panther pride eyes its second trip to the Super Bowl. Carolina is armed with a versatile offense led by the dynamic quarterbacking of Newton and the sturdy running abilities of Jonathan Stewart. But the real key to deciding its postseason fate will come down to the defense. Lethal at times, the unit has had its fair share of struggles down the stretch. If Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman and company can regain that swagger, the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi trophy is within reach. Keep pounding, baby!

Photo courtesy of maguzz.com

College Football- ‘Clemsoning’ Buried for Good

Let’s be honest. This archaic term should have been put to bed years ago. Negative perception of the ACC along with Clemson’s unfortunate placement alongside perennial power FSU in the Atlantic division have allowed the skepticism to linger far too long. But finally, the undefeated Tigers can officiate the ‘Clemsoning’ funeral with a win over mighty Alabama in the national championship. The Tigers have the game’s most electrifying player in Deshaun Watson and although the ‘Bama defense is of NFL caliber, the Tigers are no slouch on that side of the ball either. Per usual, a game of this magnitude will likely come down to turnovers and explosive plays. Here’s hoping Clemson captures a few more and wins one for the good ol’ ACC!

Golf- Mickelson Masters Magic

Yes, the young guns have taken over the Tour these days. And that’s exciting. The game’s in good hands. Years of Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Day battles are ahead. But in 2016, I hope one of the old guys shows he’s still got the ‘right ‘ (yes, he’s a Lefty) stuff. Phil ‘The Thrill’ Mickelson showed us glimpses of his old self in a memorable performance at the President’s Cup last fall. Then, in typical Phil fashion, he shut it down for the rest of the year. But if anything, it’s evidence that when fully motivated and engaged, Mickelson can still mix it up with the best. And few places get his juices flowing than a stroll down Magnolia lane each April. He still packs plenty of punch off the tee. He’s still got the best imagination. So if the putting gods can just bless him one more time in Augusta, the Phil roars could again echo through the Georgia pines, ‘a la Jack Nicklaus in ’86. A fourth Mickelson green jacket would be the sweetest one of all.

Tennis- Royalty Re-Crowned At SW19

One of my favorite summer traditions is waking up to Wimbledon. The tradition, the crispness of the immaculate green grass, the quicker courts. It’s tennis’ highest prize and champions become royalty. And that’s why I can’t help but hope for one last Center Court coronation for two of the game’s all-time aging greats. Seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer and five-time champion Venus Williams are synonymous with Wimbledon for more than their triumphs. Their model sportsmanship, regal leadership and love for the sport commands the admiration of fans and fellow players alike. And these qualities are embraced by the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club more than anywhere else. So here’s hoping for a final moment in the sun for Roger and Venus on the game’s grandest stage this summer.

Photo courtesy of theguardian.com

Olympics- U-S-A, U-S-A! 

It’s an Olympic year, folks! The best athletes across the globe will descend on Rio for the Summer Games. True to the patriot that I am, I’ll be hoping for a dominant outing for the men and women donning the stars and stripes. Another victory lap in the pool for the evergreen Michael Phelps. A fourth gold medal for Kerri Walsh-Jennings on the beach (Misty May, you will be missed). A fifth gold for the Williams Sisters on the tennis court. Another shining moment for LeBron, Curry, and the rest of the ‘Dream Team’ Americans on the basketball hardwood. Gymnastics gold for the next Gabby Douglas out there. And of course, may the USA track stars run away from the rest of the competition. Here’s to shattering USA medal count records!

So there you have it. Bold resolutions, I know. But if even half of the list gets checked off in 2016, rest assured, I’ll be rockin’ around the Christmas tree singing a rousing rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ with a fully-loaded egg nog in hand!

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes

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Oakes’ Outlook: Fall Feasting

It’s finally writing weather again. That means blue skies, full sun and this time of year, a refreshing breeze to go with it. 

It’s a glorious spot on the calendar for sports enthusiasts – baseball playoffs, President’s Cup golf, the rumblings of basketball season and of course, more football to go around than turkey at Thanksgiving. 

So from the comforts of my back porch, soaking up the last bit of warmth 2015 has to offer (depressing, I know), I get to jotting down my thoughts on the state of the sports world.

-Phil’s still got that ‘Thrill’ Last weekend in Korea, Mickelson proved his critics wrong, validating USA captain Jay Haas’ decision to tab the five-time major champion as a captain’s pick to the President’s Cup team. Guys, it’s 2015. And Phil still hasn’t missed a single one of these competitions dating back to the event’s inception. Reliving his glory days, Phil holed out from bunkers in trademark style and even drained the clutch putts when he needed to. The 45-year-old relishes the format, loves the USA, continues to inspire the sport’s young guns and most importantly, by going 3-0-1 in his Cup matches, golf’s most famous Lefty proved with proper motivation, he can still conjure the magic necessary to topple the game’s finest. Ryder Cup 2016, anyone?

Superpowers no more? Be honest. Who had both the Kansas City Royals and the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS and ALCS this year? Who raised their hand? Ok, you’re lying. But seriously, that $5 bet on a whim in Vegas to start 2015 is looking mighty profitable right now. How about a Royals-Cubs World Series, folks? Not out of the question. No Cardinals, no Giants, no Yankees, no Red Sox, no Braves. Some would say this year’s MLB Playoffs have gone to the dogs. But I’d say it might just be a new age of baseball and quite frankly, it’s refreshing. The games have been intriguing, hard-fought, and yes, full disclosure, often riddled with errors. But the drama is there. I could read it right off the ecstatic Cubs fans across from me at the bar the other night…it means a lot. So here’s to more series deciders and playoff thrillers going forward…and I can’t help it…go Cubbies! (100+ year curses have to break at some point, right?)

The year of the running backs? College football, per usual, has provided a plethora of entertainment so far this season. But sifting through all the noise, for my money, the two most emphatic performers are Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook. Some athletes are good, some are great. And then there’s another level that a select few ever attain. LSU and FSU’s standout tailbacks are becoming intimately familiar with this top-gear level. When they have the ball, they could take it to the house. At any moment. They strike fear in opposing defenses and make would-be tacklers look silly. Each Saturday, I thank my lucky stars I’m not tasked with standing in their way. In a word, Leonard and Dalvin are…”electrifying”. And that’s good news for FSU and LSU. Without their thoroughbred athletes running other teams over, it might be a rough go of it. But with them, the Seminoles and Tigers boast two Heisman candidates and in return, a legitimate chance at the top 4 and the College Football Playoff. I, for one, can’t wait to see more from these two special players – they don’t make ’em like this very often, folks!  

-Chapel Hill Championship? (Read with your inner Jim Nantz at the Masters here) ‘Is it his time?!?’ In the case of Phil Mickelson, the answer to that question was, ‘Yes, at long last!’ Well, for the ravenous Tar Heel fanbase, if Roy Williams is able to deliver a third national title to Carolina this season, it would indeed, be ‘at long last.’ The biggest question, however, if a championship year does come to pass for UNC, would Ol’ Roy be able to match Phil’s incredible 2-inch vertical? The Tar Heels begin the year as co-No.1 picks with Kentucky and are closely pursued in the polls by Maryland, Duke and Kansas. It should truly be a fascinating year in college hoops. The clock is ticking on a special campaign for this group of veteran Tar Heels with nearly everybody returning from last year’s Sweet Sixteen squad that proved when fully engaged, it could compete with anybody. The time appears to be now. We’ll know more in a few months’ time, but a couple top-5 battles with the hated Blue Devils are likely looming on the 2016 horizon…and for sports fans everywhere, that’s something to get jacked up about. 


QUICK PIGSKIN PICKS: CFB – LSU over Florida / UNC over Wake Forest / FSU over Louisville NFL – Panthers over Seahawks (5-0, baby!)

So in summary, there’s plenty of sports goodness to go around. So don’t be shy! Go ahead and saddle up to the table. Feel free to over-indulge in the fall feast that’s been served. The plates will be clean before we know it.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes

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Oakes’ Outlook: Old School Pigskin Dyslexia

I know it’s been a bit since my last blog post, folks! But it’s almost football season and my juices are flowing. Here it goes…

Less hoopla and little fanfare surrounds the upcoming 2015 Carolina football season.

And that may be just what the doctor ordered…rest, relaxation and a a little dyslexia.

Yes, that’s right. It’s time for the Tar Heel footballers to go dyslexic: Out with the new, in with the old. 

A miserable 2014 season has left Carolina faithful dazed and confused. The once hearty optimism surrounding the Red Bull-guzzling Larry Fedora regime has long since faded out of Chapel Hill.

And although that could all change with a season-opening win in the Queen City against South Carolina, I’m saying it won’t…unless, unless, UNC goes old school. (You’re welcome, football purists!)
First and foremost…UNC must run the football A LOT.

And this strategy is not merely confined to around the water cooler.

Some encouraging comments have have been circulating in preseason workouts. Fedora has voiced his desire for a heavier rushing attack this fall. Bravo, Coach!

Especially with a defense low on talent, burning up some valuable clock to provide welcome rest seems a no-brainer. And who knows, those first down sticks may actually start moving down the field? 

As much as everybody enjoys the highlight reel acrobatics and SportsCenter Top 10-worthy plays, over four quarters of ACC football, it takes more than flash to come out a winner. It takes substance. It’s not always sexy, but you’ve got to establish a base first. Otherwise, it’s a ‘smoke and mirrors show’ – a spin of the Roulette wheel.

We’ve seen that play out through the first few years of the Fedora era. When it’s good, it’s great. When Marquise is clicking, Switzer is feeling it, and Mack Hollins is in sync…wow! It’s beautiful to watch. The Tar Heels can seemingly play with anybody in the country.

college football.ap.org

But when the high-tech machine isn’t oiled and lubricated properly, look out! Interceptions, turnovers, three and outs. The game gets away from UNC in a hurry…against anybody.

With a return to the old school approach of running the football more than passing, Carolina will stay in games that in the past, the Tar Heels found themselves down 14-21 points. And then, when a patented Larry Fedora lightning bolt strikes in the fourth quarter (when the opposing defense is gassed, mind you), a victory would be secured.

What’s more, UNC has the talent to do it. With TJ Logan and Elijah Hood in the backfield, there’s plenty of ammo to work with. Move those chains!

The second ingredient to UNC’s dyslexic, throwback approach this fall? Get angry again on defense!

I’m confident this will happen. The hiring of former national championship-winning head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator was a shocking one to say the least. But heck, now that he’s here, it makes complete football sense.

While no miracles are likely to be performed by Chizik this fall (after all, he’s taken over a unit with a major dearth of talent!), I think a mindset change will be evident. And this newfound aggression may be the most important development for the 2015 Tar Heels.

For the past two seasons, UNC has lost its ability to tackle. Yes, there is the occasional big play, but we’ve seen more arm and Ole! tackles than you can shake a stick at. 

Right now, when opponents tee it up against a UNC defense, they’re licking their chops. Four or five years ago, UNC boasted a physical, fast and angry defense that stopped running backs in their tracks. Now, they give way to runaway trains.

I hate to say it, but it boils down to being a little soft. That’s not a good trait in football, especially big-time ACC football. A passive attitude is contagious. It spreads like wildfire. 


Even with a talent deficit, I’m confident Chizik is busy putting out those fires. He will change the mentality. The Tar Heels are about to get angry, playing with a chip on their shoulders. 

Chizik has the players motivated again in a scheme they can wrap their hands around. Will there be mistakes and points scored? Most definitely. But above above all, he’ll have them hitting people and delivering punishment a ‘la SEC. That bodes well.

With the spotlight squarely on nationally-ranked Clemson and Florida State, along with the resurgence of an able Wolfpack club down I-40 and Coach Cut doing his thing over at Duke, nobody is expecting much from the boys in Carolina blue.

And who can blame them? However, if a reliable ground-and-pound game is established to go along with an aggressive-minded defense, 2015 could prove a fruitful campaign inside Kenan Memorial Stadium. 

But if Tar Heel Nation is to see an ACC contender this season, it will require the curtain be closed on the Fedora Freak Show, a little more thunder than lightning, and a mild case of dyslexia to circulate the locker room. 

Out with the new, in with the old.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes

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Oakes’ Outlook: Rory, Djoker & Phil The Thrill

This past weekend, the sports world offered up more than the yearly tradition of the second leg of the Triple Crown being bagged by the Derby champ. Here’s hoping American Pharaoh can finally break the drought and seal the deal in a few weeks time up at the Belmont!

But back to the point. It wasn’t merely horse racing (and I must add, a wildly entertaining Brad Paisley concert at Walnut Creek) that piqued my interest. Three leading icons from the ‘country club sports’ stuck out most. And two of them, in true Paisley style, were ‘crushin’ it!’

-Rory McIlroy ruthlessly undressed Quail Hollow Country Club Saturday. He carded a cool 61 in breathtaking fashion. Rory had everybody else in the distinguished field playing for second before the final round ever began. He has a way of doing that. Remember the PGA at Kiawah or the US Open at Congressional? The 26-year-old Scot has no weaknesses. He smacks the ball a mile and has deft touch around the greens. And when he gets his putter going like he did in Charlotte, it’s over. Case closed. It’s beautiful to watch. I know our culture has an unhealthy addiction to crowning the next ‘best ever.’ But man, I tell you, when Rory is at his best, he’s one of, if not the best, to have ever played the game. And yes, I’ve seen Jack and Tiger play.

BOTTOM LINE: If Rory stays healthy and motivated, the sky’s the limit. I’m not betting against him snagging 10-13 major championships before all is said and done.


-Novak Djokovic is a human ball machine. But better. He’d break down the ball machine if push came to shove. The thing would short-circuit with the relentless depth and power of Novak’s groundstrokes. No Djoke! My favorite player of all time is Andre Agassi, and I thought he had the most punishing and consistent forehand and backhand we’d ever see. I’m afraid I stand corrected. Truth don’t lie! Novak confirmed that belief with his fourth title in Rome over the weekend. His comfortable run to the trophy was capped off with a 6-4, 6-3 throttling of the great Roger Federer. You’ve heard of that guy, right? The 33-year-old Federer, who many have crowned as the GOAT, was no match for the athleticism and clean hitting of the Djoker. But Fed need not hang his head. Most tour pros have little chance to hang in there these days with the gluten-free ‘ball machine’ that is Novak Djokovic.

BOTTOM LINE: If Novak continues this kind of form, and I see no reason it won’t, he’ll win the French Open and the US Open this year and push his grand slam title count up to 10.


-Phil Mickelson has been at at the forefront of the golfing universe for well over two decades now. And he has always seemed to conjure up a bigger, more enthusiastic following than any of his peers. Why is this? I don’t now Phil personally, but he seems like a nice guy and an honest one at that. He recognizes when he chokes, when he makes a bone-head decision, but at the same time, past shortcomings don’t deter him from moving forward, visualizing that next shot at glory. That’s why we call him ‘The Thrill.’ But above all, he seems like one of us. Phil invites us in to share in the highs of his successes and the lows of his struggles. We feel like we made that miraculous up and down with trademark ‘Mickelson magic’ and we also feel our stomachs turn when he pushes a four-foot putt by the hole. He makes us want to pull for him. And maybe it’s this single trait that has me, along with so many fans around the globe, hooked. This past weekend at the Wells Fargo Championship was no different for Mickelson. He teased us. Friday, he surged, turning that 71 into the 66 he’s long talked about. The driver was connecting and the putts were rolling in with accompanying thunderous roars from the throngs of adoring supporters. The thought began percolating around the grounds…Phil could win. But it was all for naught. Saturday came…and so did the double bogeys. And so, the beat rolls on for Phil. His quest for the final missing piece in the career Grand Slam will continue this June at the US Open at Chambers Bay.

BOTTOM LINE: Many analysts say the US Open course fits his eye perfectly. But I’ve heard this story before and am in no place to make a pick here. Really, though, you just never know with Phil. He’s maddeningly heroic and frustrating at the same time. But that’s why we love him.

For more of my sports take, follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes


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Oakes’ Outlook: Omaha – Book It. 

Something was just plain weird about college baseball last year. There was a disturbance in the force…even Yoda thought so. But the Tar Heels could sense it even better than their little green friend.

What were they to do? No work to knock out. Plenty of time to hit the beach. Yessir, June was inexplicably an idle month for Carolina.

Head coach Mike Fox has made a trip to Omaha for the College World Series a permanent fixture on his calendar. But those plans fell through in 2014.

In the offseason, all the players sang the same tune – let’s get back to where the program belongs.

Coach Fox famously posts the weather in Omaha up on a whiteboard in the training room. It’s programmed into the hearts and minds of the Tar Heels – a second home.

That’s pressure, for sure. But, as they say, pressure is a privilege.

For the majority of 2015, though, things looked eerily familiar. Poor run support. Fielding errors. Injuries. Late game collapses.

Was it the end of an era? Hold your horses.

Even though UNC’s six-game winning streak was snapped by UNC-Greensboro earlier this week, the Tar Heels have quietly righted the ship.

JB Bukauskas (UNC Athletics)

JB Bukauskas (UNC Athletics)

Most of that turnaround is thanks to the pitching staff. J.B. Bukauskas, most notably, has turned in some impressive innings. He’s got loads of firepower and what’s more, he’s a freshman. Junior Trent Thornton has a versatile arm, equally ready and able to step in for relief work as well.

But for the most part, UNC’s hitting has been streaky and surely not as opportunistic as Coach Fox would like.

The Tar Heels used to be filled with a batting order lined with .300 hitters. Now, they have two. You used to not be able to pitch around hot batters because everybody was on fire. Opposing pitchers had to run the gauntlet – no reprieve. The scoreboard operator got a wild workout.

These days, he’s usually got time to finish his hot dog, type out a report and call his buddy from back home. But it’s time to get used to the here and now. Scratching and clawing. Get used to it. Nothing’s going to come easy.

And now, after this exam break, we’ve reached the home stretch of the season. Crunch time. And the Tar Heels know it. They’ve seemingly flipped the switch – sharper, more focused, swinging freer at the plate. Those things bode well, especially in an ACC that really has only one clear frontrunner – Louisville.

The Cards only have two conference losses. Yeah, that snuck up on me too. Traditional powers from the Sunshine State – FSU and Miami – are predictably potent. But that’s it, folks. After that, we come to Carolina.

As much as UNC has struggled, it finds itself in fourth place in the watered-down ACC. A four seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament sounds cozy to me – made all the more comfortable by the venue.

Fittingly, Durham’s gem, newly-renovated Durham Bulls Athletics Park, will host the tourney. If you have the chance, get out to see some of the action. The DBAP’s got it all these days – fun entertainment, Moe’s, fun for the children and even a new brewery.

But back to the Tar Heels.

The UNC pitchers have gotten plenty of help from great defensive play during their recent run of success. (UNC Athletics)

The UNC pitchers have gotten plenty of help from great defensive play during their recent run of success. (UNC Athletics)

There’s a couple determined warriors that want some redemption – Skye Bolt and Benton Moss. Moss can be streaky, but he has a knack for reaching back and getting that clutch strikeout when needed. Bolt, on the other hand, is an excellent fielder and has plenty of firepower at the plate. These two fiery competitors could provide vital leadership to push UNC over the edge.

But let’s be honest: there’s nothing flashy about this team. You won’t find any of these Tar Heels topping any of the ACC statistical categories. Deficiencies abound.

So yes, I know there’s been nothing spectacular about these Tar Heels. But “spectacular” may not be necessary. The tide is turning. They’ve got just enough – cagy veterans, a couple freshman ringers and one heck of a coach who knows how to navigate the postseason journey.

So here it goes – my bold prediction. Go ahead. Do it. Book those tickets now. Omaha’s a pretty nice spot to be in June.

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