If you had offered that scenario to Carolina fans two months ago (January 28), they might have replied, “This team, this year? Ha!”
And if you had sketched that scenario to Carolina fans four months ago (late November), they likely would have said, “You mean the regional final of the NIT, right?”
It’s a testament to the accomplishment of the 2010-11 North Carolina Tar Heels that so many fans and the players themselves feel intense disappointment at falling just short of a Final Four.
As is usual at the end of the season, the disappointment has many different dimensions. In the most immediate sense, there is disappointment that Carolina didn’t seize a game that for a fleeting moment was there for the taking. The Tar Heels did some great things to crawl back from a deficit and give themselves a chance to beat Kentucky, and given the way this season has gone, it felt like Carolina was going to pull out yet another one.
On the critical play, Kendall Marshall saw a chance to drive, perhaps hoping to get Harrelson to bite so he could drop the ball off to Tyler Zeller for a layup. Instead he went for the layup and paid the price for using his preferred left hand instead of trying to switch it to his right, as Liggins registered a critical block. Then on the other end, Kentucky buried yet another three late in the shot clock to essentially ice the game.
That was a finish that will take its place alongside other painful regional final finishes in New Jersey—I can still see Kenny Smith’s three from the corner to tie Syracuse in 1987 bouncing just long, still see Wayne Ellington not quite burying the jumper against Georgetown in 2007.
There is also disappointment in thinking that maybe Carolina could have played a little better Sunday. John Henson’s foul trouble and general ineffectiveness was a major storyline in the game. Carolina also turned the ball over too much early, and seemed to lose the loose ball battle too often early on (though not so much in the game’s final minutes—Harrison Barnes prolonged the game by his heroic efforts stripping the ball from Harrelson and then draining a three to cut it to five). Carolina’s occasional fits of sloppiness were not entirely out of character, but getting relatively little from Henson was a surprise—the sophomore was both a remarkable and a reliable player over the last half of the season. These things happen in basketball, and they are more likely to happen against the truly excellent teams, but it will be hard for fans this summer not to wonder what might have happened if Henson had played more than 23 minutes and taken more than four shots.
Then there is disappointment in the fact that some heroic Tar Heel performances did not go rewarded. Dexter Strickland played out of his mind Sunday and at one point single-handedly kept the team in the game. Barnes again came up big in the final minutes. Zeller capped an outstanding NCAA Tournament with another efficient and productive performance. With a different last minute, this would have been considered a team of heroes. But as writers since Homer have observed, you don’t have to be on the winning side to display heroic qualities and great competitive character.
There is also disappointment in reflecting on the fact that Carolina, after the various results around the tournament, had a chance not only to reach the Final Four but to go to Houston as at least a co-favorite to win it all as the highest remaining seed.
But the biggest disappointment for fans is simply that this particular season—one of the most remarkable and memorable in Carolina history—is over. There’s nothing more pleasurable in sports than over-achievement, and nothing more pleasurable than seeing a team overcome legitimate doubts and some substantial issues on and off the court to accomplish something of substance. And in terms of college basketball, there’s nothing more pleasurable than seeing individuals players and teams evolve before your eyes.
This Carolina basketball team epitomized those pleasures. There was real doubt in November and December about whether this was even a tournament-quality team. After Georgia Tech, there was doubt about whether the team would tailspin back into the dysfunctional ways of the previous season. After the demoted Larry Drew parted company with the team, there was real doubt about how the team would respond and whether the Heels could get away with having only one pure scholarship point guard. And in too many individual games to mention, this Tar Heel team found itself in tight situations late, and/or having to overcome early deficits.
At just about every point of the way, this team turned doubts into belief and turned skeptical and cynical onlookers into enthusiastic believers. The team seemed to have a lot of fun in the process of doing that. By the end, it was easy to believe anything—even a big dance championship—was possible.
I think it was possible, but it just didn’t happen. The imperfections in Carolina’s game had something to do with it, and the Kentucky Wildcats and their stellar, timely shooting from downtown (12-22 three point field goals) had much to do with it as well.
Nonetheless, this was a great season, period. Great on its own terms, and great as a statement of the resiliency of Carolina’s program.
The next question of course is whether this same interesting and unique cast of characters will return to give it another shot next year. A few weeks ago when I wrote that one day maybe Barnes, Henson, and Zeller would go down as one of the all-time great Carolina front lines, it felt like a slight stretch, but few would contest that claim today. In my opinion, each of them would benefit in basketball terms and in terms of their long-term career goals by staying another year in Chapel Hill. But they have also each thoroughly earned the right to assess their options.
That’s college basketball these days. When Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler lose in the tournament as seniors, you know it’s over for them and for that particular incarnation of Duke basketball. But when a team led by talented underclassmen loses, you don’t know whether that was the only shot this group of players ever had at a national title, or whether there may still be another go-round to enjoy.
That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the season as it’s happening and each good moment as it comes along. Neither the loss to Kentucky nor the uncertainty of the future clouds or erases the magnitude of what happened in 2011: the 323rd most experienced team in the country, a team that finished the year with just three scholarship guards, a team coming off one of the worst years on and off the court in program history, that team won 29 games, won an ACC regular season title, won a whole string of close games in the process, and came a minute and a basket away from a Final Four.
If you take those fond memories and lock them in your treasure box of happy basketball thoughts that can be fondly recalled for years to come, I think in hindsight you’ll look back on the 2011 North Carolina Tar Heels and conclude: “I’ll take that.”
Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.