The season may have come to a disappointing end, losing to Kentucky 76-69 in the East Regional final, but this was not a disappointing year for North Carolina.
In fact, if I had told you on January 17th — the day after North Carolina lost to Georgia Tech by 20 points — that the Tar Heels would win the ACC regular season title and make it to the Elite 8, I think that every single Carolina Blue clad fan would have been ecstatic.
Last season, North Carolina skidded their way to a .500 season, finishing 5-11 in ACC play and ending up in the NIT. In the offseason, they lost Ed Davis to early entry, the Wear twins to a transfer, and Will Graves to a violation of team rules. Despite all of that drama, there was still plenty of talent of the roster. And as a stockpile of McDonald’s all-americans tends to do, the expectations for this team built.
The Heels were considered one of the top 15 teams in the country in the preseason. They were thought to be Duke’s one true contender for an ACC title. But, once again, North Carolina fizzled at the start of the season. A 12-5 start combined with a couple of underwhelming wins against overmatched opponents dropped the Heels all the way out of the top 25.
It looked like North Carolina was once again going to be headed to a disappointing finish to the season.
But thanks to a midseason switch at the point, from Larry Drew to Kendall Marshall, the Heels suddenly were a power house. Their fast break was clicking. Tyler Zeller and John Henson became a formidable front line. And Harrison Barnes finally found the rhythm that had all the analysts predicting he would be an all-american during the preseason.
I’m not big on moral victories, especially when dealing with a program like North Carolina, whose blue-blooded pedigree and endless recruiting budget puts them at an advantage over just about every one of the 345 other D-I programs.
That said, disappointed and frustrated Tar Heel fans need to remember where this team was two months ago.
North Carolina had a fantastic finish to the season. In a year full of disappointing finishes and underperforming powerhouses, the Tar Heels were a bright spot. Two freshmen injected life into this team midway through the season and made North Carolina relevant in the national title picture.
Carolina fans have a right to be disappointed. You should never be happy with a loss.
But when those kids arrived back in Chapel Hill tonight, I hope that they got a heroes welcome. They gave you something to cheer about until late March. There are a lot of teams that wish they could say that.
And hey, you still made it farther than Duke. That counts for something, right?