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.

Follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes

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Oakes’ Outlook: Final Four ‘Breakfast Club’

We’re at the ultimate destination of the college hoops season. The Final Four. With all its mystique, tradition, unforgettable moments and hype, it rarely disappoints.

I don’t think we need to worry about a letdown in 2015 either. Out of the vast array of possible permutations and calculations, the bracketology gods have delivered us a shining gem.

You say it’s the stars on these rosters – Jahlil Okafor at Duke. The freshman sensation plays a brand of offense rarely seen in the history of the sport. He gets two feet in the paint and it’s lights out – basket. It’s as automatic as the rising sun.

Not to mention, we’ve got the National Player of the Year frontrunner – Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. The guy plays with a versatility that has opposing coaches scratching their heads. In Kaminsky, you have a physical seven-footer who can even pop threes. Not to mention, he’s as tough as nails and cool under pressure. The higher the stakes, the better he plays. Now that’s the total package.

Oh yeah, but we haven’t even mentioned the brightest star of all. The Kentucky Wildcats, collectively, have eight of the best players in all of college basketball on one roster. The platoon system hasn’t got as much play as we thought at the beginning of the year, but man, the Wildcats could make a run to the Final Four with two separate teams. No joke. It’s an embarrassment of riches led by Willie Cauley-Stein. Length, athleticism, poise, speed. Yikes!

And we’re not even scratching the surface to the immeasurable talent that will be on display at the Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday.

But whoa! Hold your horses. Who’s holding the reigns to these thoroughbred athletes? You got it.

Good coaches get good players and in turn, coach those good players to big wins. This game’s not a mystery, folks.

And so, it should come as no huge surprise we’ve got four coaching legends ready to wage battle this weekend in Indianapolis on the game’s grandest stage.

It’s what has me most intrigued about this Final Four – the coaching matchups. The common thread is success at the highest level. But there’s no one set prototype for the man it takes to achieve that success. You need look no further than this year’s quartet to validate that claim. It’s “Breakfast Club: Pt. II”:

Bo Ryan (WISC) AKA ‘The Teacher’ – This isn’t Bo’s first rodeo. The guy’s been around the block. But frankly, I’ve always thought he’s never got the credit he deserved. He’s been racking up significant victories since 2001 at Wisconsin. But back-to-back Final Fours last year and now this season have him in the national spotlight. But Bo isn’t in this business for the spotlight like some of his peers. Bo’s more of a throwback. He merely likes to coach, or should I say ‘teach’, his kids. The basketball court becomes a classroom for Bo. And wow, his students are ALWAYS prepared for their exams. He’s always had air-tight, disciplined teams who A) don’t turn the ball over and B) take intelligent, high-percentage shots. That’s a good combo. And now that he’s secured the offensive firepower to go along with his trademark teachings, the sky’s the limit for Bo’s Badgers.

John Calipari (UK) AKA ‘The Recruiter’ – We all know about this guy. Love him or hate him, get used to him. Now that he’s at Kentucky – the nation’s premier job – he’s not going anywhere? And why should he? Even before he got the name brand to go along with it, Calipari has always stockpiled talent like he’s preparing for the apocalypse. He took Memphis to the Final Four for crying out loud. Anybody heard of Memphis lately? Calipari has single-handedly transformed the landscape of college basketball. It’s like an arms race now, except UK is the USA – that’s trouble for everybody else. Each year, Calipari promises young high school kids an irresistible deal – come to one of the best college basketball programs in the land, play for the best fan base in the country, win a national championship and then ink your multi-million dollar deal in the NBA. Who would be dumb enough to turn that down? Not to mention, Coach Cal is a charismatic closer who connects with kids in this business – he knows what makes them tick…pop culture, fame, winning and money.

Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) AKA ‘The General’ – Coach K needs no introduction. He’s built a program into national prominence, so much so, that Duke basketball has become synonymous with college hoops excellence. They are the standard. Year in. Year out. Coach K is the reason why. Schooled by Bob Knight in his time at Army, Coach K learned how to run a tight ship. He’s demanding. He controls Cameron Indoor – his players, his staff, his fans and some would say, even the officials, with a strategic whip. Each game, he enters the arena with a brisk, methodical march that indicates he’s ready for battle. But in the process, he has earned the respect of his peers and players. He accepts only one thing – winning. Losing is not an option. You do as he says. His players have no problem following his orders. Why? They want to win too. They know K prepares his troops for battle better than anybody. Yes, K has changed a bit – he’s started to adopt Coach Cal’s ‘one-and-done’ model. He’s even been using a lot more zone defense. I know these things must have pained him. But if the rules change to the game, you have to adapt to win. K loves to win.

Tom Izzo (MSU) AKA ‘The Boxer’ – Izzo’s like Rocky. Everybody seems to love the guy for his big heart and his relentless fighting spirit. He doesn’t have the talent like most of his competitors, but yet he finds a way to squeeze the most out of what he’s got. That’s admirable. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always pulled for Izzo. The true underdog that really shouldn’t ever be an underdog in the first place. Izzo sports a remarkable 13-9 record in the NCAA Tournament with the lower seeded team – that’s a record. It’s hard to quantify the intangibles. Izzo’s teams always have plenty of that – heart, pride and toughness in spades. Sometimes, I feel like Izzo could coach anybody, and I mean anybody to the Final Four. He makes young men believe. Truly believe. That’s half the battle right there. I had a coach who told me competition is 80% mental and just 20% talent. Izzo no doubt prescribes to that doctrine. Backed into the corner with his kids? No problem. That’s where they like it. Izzo and company will come out swinging, and you can bet they’ll get their money’s worth this weekend.

So this year, the Final Four has gone to the coaches starring in a stirring sequel to “The Breakfast Club”. I’m not complaining. I can hear the iconic ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ running through my head now. Enjoy it. In an age of college basketball dominated by ‘one-and-dones’ and NBA talk, it’s refreshing to see it’s the coaches – a teacher, a recruiter, a boxer and a general – who’ll take center stage again.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes


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Oakes’ Outlook: March Madness Dreaming

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.

Everybody likes their chances right now. From mighty Kentucky to driven Davidson, 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 accompanies Selection Sunday each year.

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? Doesn’t Gonzaga always lose early? You mean you picked WHO to the Elite Eight!!??!? Robert Morris? These questions become commonplace within the walls of office buildings, locker rooms of country clubs and around family dinner tables.

Live it up, Dukies! Party on, Wahoos! Bottoms up, Wolfpack! 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 add another lamb unwillingly to the herd. In this kingdom, there’s room for only one to truly roar come April.


ACC OUTLOOK – No. 1 Duke (Final Four) / No. 2 Virginia (Elite Eight) / No. 3 Notre Dame (Elite Eight) / No. 4 North Carolina (Sweet Sixteen) / No. 4 Louisville (Sweet Sixteen) / No. 8 NC State (Rd. of 32)

FINAL FOUR – Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke, Villanova

CHAMPION – Kentucky

For every school lucky enough to dance this time of year, the dream lives on. For most, it’s a fleeting visage. For others, it’s a captivating all-nighter. The goal? To make that dream a reality.

Sadly for most, 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 to race through our minds that for a select few, transform into indelible, tangible memories.

Follow me on Twitter @mattdoakes


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Oakes’ Outlook: Heating Up In Greensboro

Oakes’ Outlook: Heating Up In Greensboro

By Matt Oakes

It was quarterfinal Thursday. All the big boys (top 4 seeds) were in action with a spot in the primetime semifinals Friday night on the line. Would any of the top dogs be knocked off their pedestal? Plenty of intrigue always awaits. We’re heating up at the ACC Tourney! Who survived the pressure cooker?

TEAM OF THE DAY: Duke. Complete and utter dominance. The Blue Devils took the Wolfpack to the woodshed and are clearly the team to beat. Enough said.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Look over your shoulder the rest of the friggin’ night, okay. Let’s understand that. So if we shoot a poor percentage tomorrow your butt better not come in here.” – Roy Williams sounding off at a reporter’s attempt to jinx his team’s good shooting


The Cavaliers stamped their authority early, jumping out to a 7-0 lead and forcing Leonard Hamilton’s hand with a quick timeout. The Coliseum was more than speckled with a little orange – it was littered with Wahoo fans armed with rested lungs.

But the real story of this game was the anticipated return of Justin Anderson from injury. He didn’t start, but when he finally got into the game, he was met with a standing ovation from the Virginia faithful. Although I didn’t stand with them, boy, it’s nice to see Anderson back playing basketball.

We also quickly discovered why Tony Bennett was named ACC Coach of the Year. He figured out missing shots was no good. And therefore, his Cavaliers promptly knocked down their first six shots. The Seminoles weren’t on the same page, however, struggling to find the basket and what’s more, couldn’t buy and offensive rebound. That hurts.

At the half, FSU was doubled up by UVA, 34-17.

Virginia’s Darion Atkins went down with some sort of leg injury early in the second half. It was a scare for sure, but after a quick respite in the locker room, Atkins was back on the UVA bench.

Meanwhile, the pace of play was grinding to a near standstill. So many timeouts. So many stoppages of play. But on a positive note, some good music was pumping through the Coliseum sound system.

FSU parted the waters so bad on a Cavalier drive to the basket that I almost lost my lunch. Thankfully, I didn’t. But it was a close call. That kind of Ole! defense isn’t in Virginia’s DNA though.

The referees grew some moans of disapproval from the UVA fans. I must say, a couple no-calls on Seminole players seemed to be questionable at best. And I’m not sure official Jamie Luckie knows a travel is not an offensive foul. But nevertheless, FSU cut the deficit down to five points at 39-34 with 9:455 to play. It was a new ballgame, folks!

And nobody knew that better than Leonard Hamilton. So much for his trademark composure. He came out of his shell down the stretch, barking out orders and giving an earful to officials and players alike.

Back and forth down the stretch they came. Both squads were suddenly coming up with enormous shots, trading blows. And would you believe it? With just under six minutes to play, Leonard Hamilton took it too far. The pinstripes got back at him with a technical foul. Can you say game changer?

But ultimately, with the help of a couple clutch makes by Malcolm Brogdon and steady free throw shooting to boot, the Cavaliers put away the Seminoles and booked their spot in Friday’s semifinals.

QUARTERFINAL 2: No. 5 UNC vs. No. 4 Louisville

The offenses wasted no time getting going. Just five minutes in, it was a 9-all tie. Marcus Paige opened proceedings with a three-pointer. Montrezl Harrell was doing his thing inside. JP Tokoto was out of control, settling for jumpers. Not his game.

WAY more toughness was being displayed by the Cardinals. Getting second, third and fourth chance opportunities helps out.

The Louisville dance team threw the gauntlet down as well. They went ALL OUT. No joke. They left the Greensboro Coliseum stunned and may have just created a blossoming rivalry in the ACC – the FSU Golden Girls vs. the Louisville Dance Team. Stay tuned.

Pitino faced off with Roy in an outstanding coaching matchup (Todd Melet)

Pitino faced off with Roy in an outstanding coaching matchup (Todd Melet)

As for UNC, they went stone cold. A six-minute long drought. Ouch. But a Joel Berry three certainly helped make things feel a little better – for the crowd, too, who was mostly wearing Carolina blue.

But it wasn’t enough for Roy. The jacket was off at the 7:34 mark with his Tar Heels down six.

The Tar Heels had clouded vision of offense. Doubt. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were operating with 20/20 vision – drive to the basket. Confidence.

A nasty ‘shake and bake’ cooked up by Louisville’s Terry Rozier helped earn the Cardinals the 37-32 halftime lead.

Out of the locker room. UNC three. Carolina steal. Brice Johnson dunk. Roar. Rick Pitino timeout. Game tied at 37-all.

The highlight came when Harrell nearly jumped out of the gym to jam one home. Man, that dude can elevate. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels continued to plug away. Paige hit a nasty three right in front of me.

Nothing was separating these two teams for the third game this season. Brice Johnson was putting together a productive half of basketball for UNC, keeping his team in touch with the anticipation and intensity building in the Coliseum.

Harrell continued to fly, and I mean FLY, around the floor down the stretch. He’s a freak of nature. He makes the Cards go. Emotional intensity and physical prowess. Deadly combo.

QUARTERFINAL 3: No. 8 NC State vs. No. 2 Duke

Something big was coming. There was a buzz in the air. Like a prize fight. The build-up is half the fun. There was no doubt Duke vs. N.C. State was the main event Thursday in the Coliseum.

But sometimes, the show doesn’t live up to the hype. This one was a prime example. It was a dud. A stinker. A good memory if you’re a Duke fan. An awful nightmare if you’re a State fan.

Duke shot out of the gates in a hurry, using smart defense and overwhelmingly sharp offense to claim a 26-11 lead with 9:48 to play in the opening half.

Jahlil Okafor was able to rest comfortably on the bench for long stretches. That was scary. Justice Winslow joined him as well. Their services weren’t necessary as Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook and company were doing the deed themselves.

The ‘amoeba zone’ of Duke was frustrating the Wolfpack. In particular, it seemed Cat Barber was completely befuddled. Coach K had not forgotten the loss put on the Devils by NC State earlier in January. I don’t think he forgot about the butt slap either. This was war.

Heck, we even witnessed the ‘Plumlee Air Show’. It was a surprising addition to the night’s events, but it was that kind of night for the men in dark blue.

Mercifully, the halftime buzzer did finally come. The damage, and it was catastrophic, was done. In a dominating performance that took your breath away at times, Duke amassed a 49-22 lead.

I won’t bore you with the second half details. I’ll be honest. I zoned out. Game over. Duke moves on and oh by the way, looks like a legitimate national title contender.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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