In the real world, there is no way to set injuries to “off.” Consequently, March 2012, a month which started with such promise and an extraordinary performance in Durham, will always be remembered for what might have been. After the regular season title-clinching win against Duke, Carolina’s “full” complement of players took the floor in just two of seven postseason games: for 10 minutes against Maryland, and then the Creighton game. (The word “full” is misleading of course, since Carolina was already missing Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald.)
The ultimate result was all too predictable, with a laudable Tar Heel effort falling short against a quality Kansas team on Sunday. Along with the usual feelings of sadness for the end of the season and the end of the college careers of Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts, this time around also brings a sense of cosmic injustice: Carolina with Kendall Marshall is clearly one of the best four teams in the country, a team that didn’t get beat on the court but rather by the injury table.
But the North Carolina team that did play Sunday did get beat. That’s basketball. In the fullness of time, further, one suspects and hopes that this March might be remembered not only wistfully for what might have been, but also fondly for much of what it actually was.
To wit, Carolina’s remaining players turned in a gutsy showing in St. Louis, in getting by Ohio and taking Kansas to the final four minutes.
Stilman White proved Kenny Smith right by showing he had learned something in practice from Marshall all year, playing two full games without a turnover and competing gamely. James Michael McAdoo was terrific both games as well, while Zeller was dominant (and might have been even more dominant with more touches) on Friday and solid on Sunday. John Henson hit some big shots in both games. Justin Watts and P. J. Hairston struggled Friday but each played markedly better on Sunday, particularly Watts.
Reggie Bullock did not hit enough shots on Sunday, but did sink two clutch shots (late in regulation and at the start of overtime) on Friday against Ohio to get Carolina to Sunday. Harrison Barnes, conversely, was ineffective and disappointing for most of the Ohio game, but still made a couple of important plays at the end and then performed better against Kansas. The team as a whole looked much more comfortable in its second game without Marshall, and the 47 points tallied in the first half against Kansas was one of the most impressive halves of the season.
Unfortunately Carolina could not replicate that output in the second half and did not hit enough perimeter shots or generate enough easy baskets to win the game. Yet despite its second half struggles, Carolina still had a legitimate chance to win in the final minutes, up until the block on Henson’s shot that led to an and-one run out on the other end to give Kansas a seven point lead.
Late collapse aside, it was very much a performance to be proud of under extremely difficult circumstances.
It was also, all things considered, a week to be proud for the proverbial Tar Heel Nation, a week in which the imagined community of Tar Heel fans became very real and tangible through the #passfir5t movement and general love sent towards (and reciprocated by) Kendall Marshall from thousands of Heels fans. The idea that unselfish play and rewarding others is at the heart of what Carolina basketball is about is one that should continue to be celebrated, even after all the “5”s on thousands of wrists begin fading away Monday morning.
As for this group of players, they are already responsible for two consecutive ACC regular season titles and some of the most entertaining basketball played by a Carolina team, ever. The question for those with eligibility remaining is whether they are satisfied with that level of accomplishment at the college level.
Certainly, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes all could go pro and be very confident of being first-round picks. Whether they should go pro is a different question. If the question is, does each player have room to further grow as a player at the collegiate level, I think the answer is clearly yes. Henson would benefit from a year without Zeller as the main man inside and gaining additional strength, Marshall would benefit from a whole year playing with the offensive aggressiveness demonstrated near the end of the season this year.
Barnes ironically perhaps has the lowest stock of the three at the moment after his personal struggles (8-30 FG) in St. Louis. Suffice it to say that if Michael Jordan (who shot 54 percent from the field as a collegian) needed three years as a Tar Heel, it’s hard to see why Harrison Barnes (who shot 44 percent from the field this year) only needs two.
In the end each player will face the intensely personal question of how to weigh achieving ultimate success at the college level (possibly being a part of one of the game’s greatest ever teams next year, if everyone were to return) while gaining another year of credits towards a college degree against the clear-and-present opportunity to begin a pro career. They also face the emotional question of whether they want to close their Tar Heel careers in this fashion, or instead go through the whole process again knowing that there are no guarantees of a happy ending next year either.
In the bigger picture, that’s not a bad choice for those three young men, all of whom have played their part in enthralling Carolina fans the past two years, to have. Personally I like for Tar Heel stories to have happy endings and for players to leave knowing they have reached all their goals, but realistically it doesn’t and can’t always work out that way, either for individuals or groups of players.
Closing commentary on this 2011-12 season by focusing solely on the uncertain futures of Carolina’s underclassmen would do an injustice to two special seniors whose Tar Heel journey is definitely over. Justin Watts and Tyler Zeller played on a national championship team, then suffered through one of the most frustrating seasons in Carolina history as sophomores, then played their parts in different ways in Carolina’s recovery and comeback the past two seasons. Injuries were suffered, roommates left campus, situations arose requiring Watts and Zeller to do things outside their comfort zone, but both players soldiered on without complaint. Few can doubt that both reached just about their full capabilities as players at this level.
Watts had perhaps his best ever game as Tar Heel in the finale against Kansas, showing no ill effects from his Ohio troubles. Zeller has had bigger games than the one he played against Kansas, but without his presence on the court Carolina of course would have had no chance at all. One of Carolina’s most unique and likable all-time players doesn’t quite go out a champion, but he does go out having displayed a champion’s mentality—in St. Louis and all season long.
Thad 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.