","duration":43,"description":null,"author_name":"Team Stream Now","article_type":"uber_article","analytics":{"video_id":18013,"title":"Can Oregon Ducks Find Blueprint to Upset UNC Tar Heels in Final Four Matchup?","stream":"Oregon Ducks Basketball","published_at":"2017-03-29T13:50:38.467000","id":"435c4445-f233-4f7d-919b-79f94f70afff"},"amp_url":null,"ad_stitched_url":null},"media_width":null,"media_url":null,"media_id":null,"media_height":null,"hook_type":"photo","autoplay":false}},{"url_hash":"7a79eaaed0b1d0a31a1f668d73a333b28a8c7199767babbdf9893371d7cc1a64","url":"http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2700295-justin-jackson-has-the-north-carolina-brotherhood-on-the-brink-of-a-championship","updated_at":"2017-03-30T15:41:20Z","tag":{"unique_name":"mm-related-content","tag_id":97782,"short_name":"MM RC","logo":"mm_related_content.png","display_name":"MM Related Content","color2":"","color1":""},"status":"active","position":null,"playlist_type":"ts","playlist_id":957201,"permalink":"/articles/track/6441261108-fam-first-justin-jackson-has-unc-on-brink-of-title","performed_by":"kbrown@bleacherreport.com","original_url_hash":65378153,"notification":null,"is_locked":false,"is_featured":true,"internal_position":"20.0175781250","id_str":"6441261108","id":6441261108,"href":"http://djay.bleacherreport.com/playlists/mm-related-content_ts/tracks/6441261108","hide_from_regions":[],"hidden_attributes":[],"group_tags":[],"expires_at":null,"created_at":"2017-03-30T15:41:05Z","content_type":"external_article","content":{"title":"Fam First: Justin Jackson Has UNC on Brink of Title","thumbnail_url":"https://img.bleacherreport.net/img/images/photos/003/667/081/0e076be609a17e7bad94a61c36cf1fe2_crop_exact.jpg?w=900&h=600&q=75","metadata":{"title":"Justin Jackson Has the North Carolina Brotherhood on the Brink of a Championship","thumbnail_url":"https://img.bleacherreport.net/img/images/photos/003/667/081/0e076be609a17e7bad94a61c36cf1fe2_crop_exact.jpg?w=900&h=600&q=75","provider_url":"http://bleacherreport.com","provider_name":"Bleacher Report","photo_credit":"(Getty Images)","description":"

\"\"He knocked on the door around 10:30 p.m.—not long after the ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Duke at Madison Square Garden.

\n

North Carolina's Justin Jackson was still in his standard postgame attire—gray and black suit, blue shirt and black pants—when he entered his parents' 15th-floor room at New York City's Four Seasons Hotel. Sitting on a bench at the foot of the bed, the 21-year-old leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.

\n

\"This is tough,\" he said.

\n

Less than a week after being named ACC Player of the Year, Jackson had missed 16 of his 22 field goal attempts against Duke, his worst performance in a maddening four-game stretch in which he shot just 33.3 percent (20-of-60) from the field, including 7-of-31 from three-point range.

\n

\"\"

\n

It didn't take Lloyd and Sharon Jackson long to detect what was wrong with their son: He was trying to prove that he was worthy of his recent award.

\n

\"Don't worry about people thinking you're not deserving,\" Sharon said. \"You've already proven yourself, otherwise you wouldn't have won the voting. Now celebrate it, embrace it.

\n

\"And start having fun again.\"

\n

As they reflect on that evening more than two weeks later, Sharon and Lloyd are lounging in the dining room of their home just outside Overland Park, Kansas. A bundle of suitcases sit in the entryway, still unpacked from last week's trip to Memphis for the NCAA tournament's South Regional.

\n

With 24 points in a Sweet 16 win over Butler and 19 against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Jackson propelled the Tar Heels into their second straight Final Four. In four NCAA tournament games, the 6'8\" small forward is averaging 19.8 points while shooting 46.8 percent from the field.

\n

\"That talk with my parents helped so much,\" Jackson says. \"It changed everything.\"

\n

Leaning on family members for support is nothing new for Jackson, who developed an especially close bond with his parents and three younger siblings while being homeschooled throughout most of his childhood.

\n

That upbringing partially explains why Jackson has flourished in Chapel Hill, where an emphasis on brotherhood and family culture has helped shape North Carolina into one of college basketball's most consistently successful programs.

\n

\"\"

\n

While schools such as Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have become one-year pit stops for many of the country's top recruits, North Carolina hasn't had a one-and-done player in the past 10 years. The Tar Heels have appeared in four Final Fours and won six ACC titles during that span.

\n

Player transfers—an intensifying trend in college basketball, with more than 700 in Division I last season—have also been virtually nonexistent at North Carolina, which hasn't lost a Tar Heel to another school since 2011.

\n

\"I never had my mind set on going one-and-done,\" says Jackson, a McDonald's All-American projected as a first-round NBA draft pick before his freshman season. \"There are a lot of players who [think like that], but then they go in a different direction.

\n

\"People just fall in love with Carolina. Everyone falls in love with the program. It's a family, and sometimes it's hard to leave a family.\"

\n

The loyalty has paid off for the Tar Heels, and for Jackson, who on March 24 was named a consensus first-team All-American. A junior who averages a team-high 18.2 points, Jackson is the 18th North Carolina player to achieve the honor, joining the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Rasheed Wallace and Antawn Jamison.

\n

\"\"

\n

\"When you look at the names on that list, it's surreal,\" Sharon Jackson says. \"It's just amazing to think back on all he's been through, on all the work it took to get here.\"

\n

And, as Justin points out, all of the people who helped along the way.

\n

When she opened his folders and thumbed through his schoolwork, Sharon Jackson noticed more than the good grades achieved by her third-grade son, Justin.

\n

Almost every piece of paper featured doodles in the margins. Sheets from coloring books were mixed in with pages of math problems, and grammar assignments were decorated with scribbles and pictures.

\n

Justin, she soon learned, was finishing his schoolwork 20 minutes after it was assigned and drawing throughout the rest of the class.

\n

Realizing he could be doing more with his spare time, Sharon says she and her husband, Lloyd, \"decided to take the plunge\" and home-school Justin beginning in the fourth grade.

\n

\"We had some really good friends who had talked about homeschooling,\" Sharon says, \"and we'd always thought, 'That's just weird. We're not going to do that. We're not going to be that weird family.' But Justin enjoyed it. It just became what we do.''

\n

Although he had occasional help from tutors, Justin was taught primarily by Sharon. One of the most important things in Justin's life is his faith, so he says he appreciated the way his mom taught basic curriculum \"with a Christian twist.\" He also relished the opportunity to grow closer with his parents and siblings.

\n

\"\"

\n

Jackson says the discipline and time-management skills he developed during his home-school years have helped him athletically and academically. Perhaps most importantly, though, they made him appreciate the value of having a close family.

\n

\"Life can get crazy on the college scene and also as a professional,\" Sharon says. \"We wanted to make sure that, amid all his hopes and dreams, he'd always value having the support of a family. He knows that bond is something that will always be there no matter what.\"

\n

The principles instilled by his parents—who moved the family from Texas to Kansas in 2015—also helped Jackson when it came time to choose a school.

\n

Every time a college coach would leave his home after an official visit, his parents would ask Justin the same questions: Could you play pool with him on a Friday night? Would you feel comfortable showing up at his house to discuss a problem? Do you think he's a good person?

\n

No one fit Justin's criteria more than North Carolina coach Roy Williams and his staff.

\n

He loved how assistants such as C.B. McGrath and Eric Hoots brought their children around the program, and he was taken aback by all of the former stars who regularly return to Chapel Hill to cheer for the team while advising current players.

\n

Shortly after committing, Jackson struck up friendships with ex-UNC stars such as Harrison Barnes, Marvin Williams and Kendall Marshall. They text each other regularly, with the elder players providing guidance to Jackson when he's going through a difficult stretch.

\n

\"\"

\n

Lloyd Jackson says he couldn't have been more impressed with Williams while shadowing him last fall as the coach dropped in on various tailgate parties before a UNC football game.

\n

After watching Williams hobnob with everyone from the golf cart driver to the security guard, Lloyd posed a question.

\n

\"Don't you get tired of talking to people?\" he asked.

\n

Williams smiled.

\n

\"Absolutely not,\" he said. \"I care about people. They mean something to me.\"

\n

That's why Williams didn't stand in Justin's way last spring shortly after UNC's last-second loss to Villanova in the NCAA title game, when he decided to test the NBA waters and enter the draft. Williams wanted what was best for Jackson, even if it meant losing him.

\n

In May, Jackson worked out before every professional team at the NBA combine in Chicago. He also had four individual workouts scheduled in the ensuing weeks. But after his first session with the Atlanta Hawks, he telephoned his parents.

\n

\"I'm not ready,\" he told them.

\n

Deep down, Sharon Jackson knew why.

\n

\"I don't think he was ready to leave his family,\" she says. \"I don't think he was ready to leave his team.\"

\n

As Justin Jackson shoveled down his fourth serving of mashed potatoes, his father worried he would make himself ill. It was Thanksgiving Day in 2015, and Justin—appearing nauseated and fatigued—was basically forcing himself to eat.

\n

\"I'm so sick of food,\" he said.

\n

Weight has long been a problem for Jackson. While his teammates gained muscle and bulk during his first two years in Chapel Hill, he couldn't seem to pack on any pounds. UNC strength coach Jonas Sahratian suggested he eat six-to-seven eggs each morning for breakfast, but that didn't work. There were gorge sessions with pizza and potatoes and other foods packed with carbohydrates, but they made him lethargic and miserable.

\n

At the NBA combine in May, almost every team urged him to beef up his 193-pound frame.

\n

\"\"

\n

\"It was a constant battle for a long time,\" Sharon Jackson says.

\n

Last summer, though, things changed.

\n

Instead of eating a few massive meals each day at random times, Justin developed a more structured approach. Now he consumes five smaller meals, all on a set schedule.

\n

It's not uncommon for him to leave his apartment more than an hour before an 8 a.m. class to go to Breadmen's Restaurant for French toast, two eggs, two bacon strips and a sausage patty. Slices from Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, enchiladas from Monterrey Mexican Restaurant, sandwiches from Jersey Mike's Subs and nuggets from Chick-fil-A…Jackson's debit card statement is filled with charges from restaurants throughout Chapel Hill.

\n

\"He's asked us to put more money in his account this year than he did his first two years combined,\" Lloyd chuckles. \"If he didn't have to run so much each day, he'd weigh 260 pounds.\"

\n

Instead, Jackson will settle for 210—nearly 20 pounds heavier than he was last spring.

\n

The extra bulk has paid dividends on the court, where a bigger, stronger Jackson carries himself with more confidence and plays with more physicality.

\n

Still, while he knew the additional weight would help, Jackson realized he needed to do more than eat to enhance his game. His scoring average from his freshman year (10.7 points) to his sophomore season (12.2) hardly changed. And his accuracy from three-point range did not improve, falling from a subpar 30.4 percent to an ugly 29.2.

\n

\"He realized his first two seasons were pretty stagnant,\" Sharon Jackson says. \"He said, ‘I have to change something.'\"

\n

So Jackson altered his work ethic. Or rather, he enhanced it.

\n

\"\"

\n

It wasn't that he had given poor effort in the past. But with stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige graduating, he knew he'd be counted on to set an example and provide leadership. If the Tar Heels were to return to the Final Four, it was imperative that Jackson be more productive offensively and shoot at a higher clip.

\n

\"Having Marcus and Brice there my first two years, it's human nature to fall back a little bit,\" Jackson says. \"Now, coming into this year, there was a little more pressure on my shoulders. That's the position I love to be in.\"

\n

Partly because he was home-schooled, Sharon said her son was often viewed as different during his high school years. She jokes that people \"thought he was a little weird\" because he kept to himself.

\n

She encouraged him to not to be afraid to be different at North Carolina. Declining an invitation to hang out with friends to work on your game, she preached, isn't always a bad decision. If anything, it could set an example.

\n

That's why Jackson's parents were so impressed last fall when they'd call him at 11 p.m. and he'd answer from the Dean Smith Center, where he and roommate Luke Maye were taking extra shots. Night after night during the offseason—unless they were at the movies, which was common—Jackson and Maye strolled to the gym to hoist three-pointers and mid-range jumpers.

\n
\n

\"A year ago, his dream was on the edge of his fingertips. Now it's in the palm of his hand.\" — Sharon Jackson on her son, Justin

\n
\n

The hard work has resulted in Jackson posting a career-best mark (38 percent) from beyond the arc. And in last week's Elite Eight victory over Kentucky, it was Maye who hit the game-winning 18-footer with 0.3 seconds remaining on the clock. Lloyd Jackson was moved when he congratulated Luke, a former walk-on, later that evening.

\n

\"Mr. Jackson,\" Maye said, \"I owe a lot of that to Justin. He's the one that got me in the gym every night and prepared me for this moment.\"

\n

Luke's heroic shot earned him Most Outstanding Player honors at the South Regional. Otherwise, Jackson would've been a shoo-in for the honor. His 19.8-point scoring average in the NCAA tournament and his defense on Kentucky standout Malik Monk are the main reasons the top-seeded Tar Heels advanced to take on No. 3 seed Oregon in the semifinals Saturday in Phoenix.

\n

Jackson's strides haven't gone unnoticed by NBA scouts. Considered a fringe first-round pick a year ago, Jackson is now projected by DraftExpress to be the 12th selection this summer.

\n

\"Before the season I told him him, 'Son, I hope and pray that you have a tough decision to make at the end of the year,'\" Lloyd says. \"A year ago, his dream was on the edge of his fingertips. Now it's in the palm of his hand.\"

\n

\"\"

\n

Jackson, though, isn't concerned about the NBA draft or even the national championship game. Not yet, at least.

\n

When his parents FaceTimed him Monday night, he was folding laundry and thinking about Saturday's game against Oregon. The following afternoon, the Associated Press announced Jackson as a first-team All-American—just like the National Association of Basketball Coaches had done the week prior.

\n

Sharon sent Justin a congratulatory text shortly after hearing the news. Moments later, she remembered that conversation from weeks earlier back at the Four Seasons, the one about living up to other people's expectations. Sharon picked up her phone.

\n

\"No pressure!\" she wrote to her son.

\n

The response was immediate, and it made her smile.

\n

\"None whatsoever.\"

\n

 

\n

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.

\n

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.

Read more NCAA Tournament news on BleacherReport.com

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\"\"After the formalities—after he slips on the \"CUT THE NET\" T-shirt, after he gathers with his teammates for the trophy presentation on the dais, after he snips a section of the net and strings it around his hat—PJ Dozier sets off on his own path.

\n

He isn't lost, but he doesn't know exactly where he’s going. First, he finds a teammate holding the East Regional trophy—which South Carolina had earned by defeating No. 10 seed Marquette, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Baylor and finally, on this Sunday afternoon, No. 4 Florida, giving the school its first Final Four berth—and pulls it into his chest.

\n

\"Oh yeah,\" he says. \"I'll hold on to this for a while.\" Then he lets a few fans find him, lowering his shoulders to slip into the camera frame for their selfies or throwing up four fingers for their Snapchat stories.

\n

Then, as if he's just remembered something he'd forgotten in another room, he 180s on the court and cuts through the maze toward the crowd.

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\"\"

\n

He high-fives his way through the fans standing courtside, slips between security guards at the bottom of the lower bowl and scales chairbacks till he reaches his destination: his family. Standing tall above the nearly dozen grandparents, parents, siblings and cousins who made the trip is Perry Dozier Sr., a former South Carolina forward and PJ's father. Without a word, they embrace. And as PJ descends again toward the court, Perry yells, \"I'm floating!\"

\n

As PJ makes his way at last toward the locker room, he finally finds the words to fit his feelings. \"I'm blessed,\" he says. \"I'm living right now what every kid dreams about: playing for your hometown team and taking them further than they've ever been.\"

\n

About 30 years before South Carolina signed PJ Dozier to its class of 2015, the Gamecocks were hoping to secure the services of high school stars Perry and Terry Dozier in the class of 1985. To that end, then-Gamecocks coach Bill E. Foster shipped a nearly 10x10 poster to the twin boys' home in Baltimore. It read, \"SOUTH CAROLINA WANTS PERRY AND TERRY,\" and it was co-signed, a Baltimore Sun story notes, by seemingly \"half the state.\"

\n

Perry, who is 6'10\", and Terry, a 6'9\" McDonald's All-American, were nicknamed the Twin Towers, and they did eventually sign with South Carolina. Although injuries limited Perry to 2.5 points per game through three seasons, Terry averaged 13.9 points through four years and even played on a South Carolina team that advanced to the NCAA tournament as a senior, losing to N.C. State in the first round. After school, Terry went on to play part of a season with the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and then for several years overseas, and Perry set down roots in South Carolina.

\n

After having two girls, Asia and Amelia, Perry and his wife, Theresa, welcomed PJ to the world in 1996. Years before the internet began giving birth to an endless succession of five-year-old basketball phenoms, PJ became just that. In grainy video footage, five-year-old PJ can be seen crossing over and stealing from seven-year-olds and sinking layups with both hands.

\n

\"\"

\n

To understand how serious basketball instruction was in the Dozier household, consider this: That footage wasn't shot so it could be uploaded to YouTube, which was still years away from launch. It was shot so that Terry, the uncle-slash-trainer, and Perry, the father-slash-coach, could review it with PJ.

\n

Before PJ was studying multiplication tables, he was studying tape.

\n

Perry would coach PJ in rec leagues and on the AAU circuit until sixth grade, and Terry would train him until high school. They built PJ's game from the fundamentals up, starting with ball-handling and footwork. Although they figured PJ would be tall, they didn't want him pigeonholed as a big man, so Perry would fudge PJ's age and play him with boys one or two years older.

\n

\"With the way the game was changing, you were going to need ball skills,\" Perry says. \"And when you play with older kids, you get tougher.\"

\n

By March 2009, a month after he had been surrounded by the NBA's best while playing in the junior national game at NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix, PJ was named the best sixth-grader in the country by Hoop Scoop. The ranking put his name in a New York Times news brief, and his skyrocketing hoops career was chronicled in a Sunday feature in South Carolina's The State. \"I see my basketball talent as a gift from God,\" 12-year-old PJ told the newspaper, \"and you can't just let God's gift sit there.\"

\n

\"\"

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What neither Hoop Scoop nor the two newspapers nor any of his many opponents knew was that PJ had torn his right anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments the previous year during a tournament in Charlotte. Although doctors repaired his MCL, they advised Perry to put off his son's ACL surgery for fear that it could potentially stunt his growth. And so as PJ grew from a 5'6\", No. 1-ranked sixth-grader to a 6'4\", consensus top-25 sophomore playing for his father at Spring Valley High, he did so with only one functional ACL.

\n

Although the eventual surgery sidelined him for his junior season in high school, he recovered in time to become a McDonald's All-American and a top recruiting target for prestigious programs such as North Carolina, Michigan, Louisville, Georgetown and, of course, South Carolina.

\n

Even though PJ had grown up going to Gamecocks games, his commitment was far from guaranteed. He had seen the school's fanbase grow, but he remembered the nearly empty arena of his childhood. Even though his sister Asia was a captain on what would become a women's Final Four squad at South Carolina, he wasn't sure the men's team would soon make a similar breakthrough.

\n

Part of what eventually sold him was Frank Martin, who had been introduced in 2012 but whose head coaching record was 28-38 through two seasons. Martin made no promises about wins and losses. He focused instead on the smallest details of development, just like PJ's uncle and father had done.

\n

\"Some people were saying that we were pressuring him to go out of state,\" Perry says, \"but nothing could be farther from the truth. We wanted him to go where he'd fit, where he'd be developed. And of course as a parent, you want your child close to home.\"

\n

Or, as Asia puts it, \"South Carolina always had his heart, but they had to earn his commitment.\"

\n

\"\"

\n

Although Martin never made PJ a poster, he did take advantage of that proximity: He or a staff member attended almost every one of PJ's high school or AAU games. It was the same full-court press that had helped them land South Carolina's top prospect in the class of 2013, Sindarius Thornwell.

\n

On Nov. 12, 2014, the first day of the early signing period, PJ held a press conference at his high school and slipped on a Gamecocks hat. When Martin heard the news, he tweeted: \"I am so proud to welcome [PJ Dozier] 2 the family. Unbelievable young man that will wear the Garnet and Black proudly!!! Let's goooooookk.\"

\n

One of the first replies read: \"What a great day, coach! Watch out SEC! The Gamecocks are on the way up!\"

\n

If not for Asia, PJ might have never played for the Gamecocks. Although his father and uncle were always his on-court counsel, Asia taught him the intangibles. Three years his senior, she'd challenge him to driveway duels that would sometimes last hours and almost always end in tears.

\n

\"I wasn't going to let him grow up soft just because he didn't have a big brother,\" Asia says. \"So I made sure I was big sister and big brother.\"

\n

\"\"

\n

That competition extended well beyond the basketball court. In fact, the most contentious Dozier family activity was often bowling night, which would happen one or two times a month at the Royal Z Lanes near their home in Spring Valley. Perry, Terry and their mother, Paula, had all spent time as semi-professional bowlers. Even Grandma wasn't above trash talking. \"I can't say exactly what would be said when we went bowling,\" says PJ, whose personal best is 287, \"but those nights were legendary.\"

\n

As he transitioned to college, PJ continued to lean on family. Asia's dorm suite, which was almost identical to his and two floors above it, became his second home. Asia would often return from practice to find PJ napping in her bed. They'd buy groceries together, and then he'd beg her to cook dinner for him. He'd bargain by saying he'd do the dishes afterward, but Asia rarely held her baby brother to that promise.

\n

On the court, PJ was battling the kind of outsized expectations that get placed on every 5-star prospect. Although he started 28 of the Gamecocks' 34 games, he averaged just 6.7 points and 3.0 rebounds in 19 minutes a night. Most troubling were his advanced stats, which, according to kenpom.com, showed a player who used nearly 27 percent of his team's possessions with an abysmal offensive rating of 78.9.

\n

Although South Carolina started the season 15-0, it was clear Martin hadn't found the right fit for his star freshman. \"I've got to figure him out as a player,\" he told reporters after a January win over Vanderbilt. \"That's the biggest adjustment anyone has to make. I've got to figure out what he's real good at, and he's got to figure out that he's got to be a little more aggressive. He's too passive.\"

\n

The Gamecocks would limp to a 9-7 finish, lose in the first round of the SEC tournament to Georgia and barely miss out on the Big Dance. The snub left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

\n

\"\"

\n

For Dozier, that meant rededicating himself to training in the offseason. Through South Carolina's legendary strength and conditioning program, he estimates he put on about 15 pounds of muscle. He also accepted a secondary scoring role, averaging 13.8 points behind Thornwell (21.6 PPG), who would become the SEC Player of the Year.

\n

But for the second season in a row, South Carolina struggled in the stretch run. Bookended by a quadruple-overtime loss to Alabama and a first-round exit from the SEC tournament at the hands of the same Crimson Tide, South Carolina finished the season 3-6. After that SEC tournament loss, Thornwell erupted in the postgame locker room. \"I was pissed,\" he remembers. He called out players specifically, asking them if they wanted to keep playing or not.

\n

Martin reminded his team of a metaphor he'd used all season, of tug of war. \"If one person on one side lets go of the rope, it's bad,\" he told reporters. \"I don't care how hard it is. You can't let go of the rope or your team's going to lose. So we started saying, 'We're in a difficult moment right now. Hold on to that rope. Don't let that rope go. I don't care how hard it gets—don't let that rope go.'\" He also asked them a simple question: \"Why not us?\"

\n

After breezing by Marquette in the first round of this year's NCAA tournament, South Carolina has strung together the most impressive run of any team in the field. Dozier has more than done his part, averaging 15.3 points in the tourney and being named to the All-East Regional team. Although he'd dropped off most mock drafts, his recent performances have inspired scouts to take a fresh peek at a player who has always looked the part of a future NBA All-Star but hadn't put it all together prior to this tournament.

\n

For Dozier, the most enthralling thing about this run hasn't been that NBA scouts are watching. It has been seeing how fervently Gamecocks fans have followed their team. \"I was coming to South Carolina games when almost no one was watching,\" he says. \"Everyone is watching us now.\"

\n

As the Gamecocks' bus idles in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, Perry Dozier and his family brave the 41-degree New York day to see PJ one more time. Well, most of his family—Asia and an aunt excuse themselves and head to a Kmart across the street to wait in the warmth. \"My hands are cold,\" Perry says, \"but I'd stand out here all day to see my boy.\"

\n

\"\"

\n

When PJ finally emerges, he is wearing his South Carolina sweats, a beige Steph Curry backpack and a bright smile. He poses for more photos with fans and then basks in the afterglow of another win with his family. He jokes with Asia that when reporters were asking him questions in the locker room, he would twirl the piece of the net secured to his hat to show it off.

\n

When the buzzer sounded in the arena, Asia had a flashback to her own Final Four run. Now she hopes out loud that he will make it a game further than her Gamecocks did.

\n

After a final family photo—and a brief interruption from a pair of college-aged women wearing South Carolina jerseys who demanded a photo with PJ by yelling, \"Party Juice! Party Juice!\"—PJ gives his father a fist bump. \"See you in Phoenix!\" several fans yell. PJ turns toward the bus and strides away. He knows exactly where he's going next.

\n

    

\n

David Gardner is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @byDavidGardner.

\n

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.

Read more NCAA Tournament news on BleacherReport.com

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Vancouver Canucks logoVancouver Canucks

NHL Northwest: Ups, Downs, Unknowns of the League's "Toughest Division"

M MacDonald HallSenior Analyst ISeptember 9, 2008

(Above: Jarome Iginla and Sam Gagner battle in Alberta)  The Calgary Flames are projected to top the NHL’s Northwest Division, but what will rival underdogs have to say about that?

In a league of Cinderella performances and unexpected failures, the Northwest Division epitomises the unpredictable elements of NHL hockey.  The past few years have treated fans of these teams to tight, nerve-wracking standings and bitterly heated rivalries. Talented rosters inexplicably fail and unlikely heroes emerge all over the league, but in the Northwest even the slightest stutter or improvement by one squad can hugely affect each of the other four clubs.  In such a tight division, every team is a potential dark horse.

Last year the Northwest continued their tradition of subtle superiority, but will soon be in for a slide.  Though universally considered one of the toughest divisions in the league by experts, it is often underrated by casual observers because none of its teams boast extravagant point-totals.  Intense divisional competition and “point-snatching” lead to lower but more closely-knit standings. 

In 2007-08 only ten points separated the team in first place from the two tied for last (MIN-98 pts; COL-95 pts; CAL-94 pts; VAN and EDM-88 pts) in what was the tightest division in the NHL.  If analyst forecasts are correct this year won’t be much different, and each club has unique intangibles which will guide them through a tough season and hopefully give them an edge.

 

Many are predicting the Calgary Flames to rule the roost in '08-'09, still possessing some of the top talent in the West.  Issues with chemistry and regularity led to major forward subtractions (Alex Tanguay, Kristian Huselius, Stephane Yelle, Owen Nolan), but GM Darryl Sutter balanced losses with younger, less-expensive replacements like Mike Cammalleri, Rene Bourque, Curtis Glencross, and Todd Bertuzzi, while retaining an enviable core.

Physicality with a gung-ho/flash style is a Calgary hallmark, re-solidified in recent years with increasingly gifted players and dedicated team focus.  Progressively worrying consistency issues have called this identity into question however, and other teams have learned to take advantage of Flames who now fail to adapt. Can Cammalleri, Bourque, and Glencross finally reach their potential within the team's talented roster, and if so, how will the team adjust?

The addition of new faces will inevitably alter Flames identity, but there will be no bigger question-mark than Todd Bertuzzi and the baggage he carries.  Will the support of well-respected captain Jarome Iginla help him re-integrate into the top of the League?

Star goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has been questioned in recent years for his slow starts and baffling inconsistencies, issues which are beginning to overshadow the astounding acrobatics he still performs. Skater performance and reaction often reflects goaltender confidence and consistency.  If Kipper does not regain his trademark reliability, the Flames in front of him will change their style and lose that important go-get-’em aspect of their game which has stemmed from an unwavering confidence in their Vezina-winning netminder.

These factors, along with Calgary’s unpredictability (and occasionally disastrous predictability) are the Flames’ most prevalent "unknown" elements.  If they can find consistency though, watch out!  They could take doubters by surprise, since many "outsiders" grossly underestimate their  now-considerable depth. 

 

The Vancouver Canucks are anticipated to be at the bottom of the standings again, but their offensively-depleted roster will provide fresh players a legitimate chance at promotion.  With so many leaders lost (Trevor Linden, Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison) and such a decline after the Sedin twins’ projected point-totals, there will be a lot of roles to fill. 

Roberto Luongo, Vancouver's star goalie and now their captain, will have a lot on his plate and will need to play well to hold his team up through the year and down the stretch.  But goaltending isn't the question for the Canucks; how well can the rest of the roster come together to balance the team at the other end of the rink?

New additions like Steve Bernier, Pavol Demitra, and Kyle Wellwood are expected to fit seamlessly into the Canucks system and to some extent replace outgoing skaters.  Players with past and present potential will need to exploit this golden opportunity to carve their own niche in the “rebuilding” team.  On the blueline, Kevin Bieksa will have the most responsibility so far in his NHL career.  Those who were once the focus of high expectations, such as Ryan Kesler, Taylor Pyatt, Matt Pettinger, Wellwood, and Bernier have a chance to overcome personal hurdles and make a real difference to their team.  Vancouver’s season outcome may well depend on it; if they want a come-from-nowhere rally they will need 110% effort from their entire cast.**

In Minnesota it could be time for sophomore centreman James Sheppard and other youthful players to join the Wild’s top scorers.  Coping with their roster’s facelift, St. Paul’s finest young talent will have more room to advance this year.  Many are well integrated into the system and have already found franchise success: seven of Minnesota’s original eight 1st Round draft picks are currently valued members of the team, including captain-in-waiting Mikko Koivu.  Many also hold hope for newly acquired possible call-up Corey Locke.

A returning Andrew Brunette has a chance to revamp his game as second banana to oft-injured Marian Gaborik, while many of Minnesota’s other summer additions possess quality potential not yet fully realised (Marc-Andre Bergeron, Marek Zidlicky, Antti Miettinen).  Veteran leader Owen Nolan will undoubtedly make an impact in the locker room, but how another move late in his career will affect his play remains to be seen.

How well will a Division-title-defending club adapt to recent changes?  How will the youth respond in this strict environment?  The Wild can be incredibly stable, and players on this squad know their roles and how to play them.  Their frustrating-yet-dryly entertaining style of play, together with new step-up role-players give Minnesota a chance to surprise the critics once again.

 

In a somewhat predictable Colorado squad it may be the goaltending department which provides the biggest surprises.  Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft are set to start the season for the Avalanche, but Jason Bacashihua could capitalise on any failings.  Raycroft will have a chance to answer the consistency questions which have shadowed him since his Calder-winning season, and Budaj should improve with the departure of Jose Theodore.  Will the Denver-based backstops respond or flounder under such responsibility?  How long coach Tony Granato’s patience will last is a story which may yet dramatically unfold.

The Avalanche’s scoring sources are no surprise (Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth, Paul Stasny, Milan Hejduk), though there will be youngsters like Wojtek Wolski and TJ Hensick who will improve enough to be regular contributors.  Darcy Tucker may seem like a fish-out-of-Toronto, but the gritty and emotional spark-plug could flourish in pressure-free anonymity. Can the Avs aging roster keep up the pace and glory of years past?

This group is being counted out early this season, but include many skilled players and have shown in the past that they have the character to battle steadily forward.  They can give other Northwest squads trouble game-to-game; watch for possible upsets by the Avs.

 

Saving the best (if most hated) dark-horse team for last, the Edmonton Oilers have high hopes despite what detractors say.  Their young-guns stepped up in an injury-plagued 2007-08 and gained invaluable confidence and experience.  If Robert Nilsson, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, and Tom Gilbert build on last year’s successes, hopefully they haven’t tipped their hands too much and still catch the competition unawares.  They may help their team indirectly as well: while the name Gilbert Brule may sound familiar it has rung hollow in the NHL, but he could find renewed inspiration among other young and developing talent.

The Oil will be the division’s most promising underdog, carrying last year’s end-of-season momentum and a young lineup full of potential breakout performances into 2008-09.  There is also just enough veteran experience to shore up any slip-ups, especially on the back end.  Freshly-acquired Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky (and to a lesser extent, Jason Strudwick) will join old familiars and help shape the new dynamic.  Can the Oilers' experienced reliables help newcomers and youth find Edmonton's old magic spark?

If the team receives depth production, and depending on how the goaltending situation plays out between Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon, the Oilers could cause competitors fits this year even if they don't top the standings.

 

The rest of the NHL should always be wary of Northwest teams.  Because divisional rivalries and point-pilfering are so rampant in the upper corner of the continent, these survivalist clubs realise their best chance for “free” points is away from familiar terrain.  Many underestimate these teams, an advantage they all share.  Physical and fast, Northwest crews can throw even the best organisations for a loop.

As in all of hockey most of these issues affect every team to some degree, though every one relies on its own unique and often unexpected qualities.  Each could fail or succeed depending on endless factors.  There may be no arguing with the predictions, but there is an unofficial Northwest Division credo worth remembering: Expect the unexpected, and like the weather, if you don’t like it wait five minutes. 

 

** If Mats Sundin does miraculously appear in Vancouver then the team’s structure could change dramatically, but for now it’s safe to assume the Canucks will remain status quo.
 
Northwest Division Abbreviation Legend:
CAL - Calgary Flames
COL - Colorado Avalanche
EDM - Edmonton Oilers
MIN - Minnesota Wild
VAN - Vancouver Canucks

Thanks to DLH for the fresh perspectives and fantastic support.  Photo credit: C. De Neve, Calgary Herald.  Article syndicated through CBS Sports.

Also, discover and discuss what it takes to succeed in hockey, be it in the NHL's Northwest or down in Junior 'B' with Open Discussion.  More Northwest and Calgary Flames news to come.

M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and is a regular columnist for the NHL department.  Future articles include a breakdown of Calgary Flames playoff performance in the 21st Century, prospect news (Parts One and Two are already published), roster changes and information, detailed hockey trivia, game reports, and more.  M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an wide assortment of Flames/NHL articles.

M also writes on various other topics, sport and non-sport related.  Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to M’s Bleacher Report profile or via email. 

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