The Tar Heels encountered a deluge of “what-if” questions from the media following the game, which was to be expected. Media and fans – and history, for that matter – tend to focus on the endgame result. But the common theme resonating from the UNC locker room is that while the players may reflect back and wonder what might have been, there was no time for self-pity during the season.
Player after player acknowledged the injuries of Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland, John Henson and Kendall Marshall – totaling 24 starts and 62 games lost to injury – but no one blamed those troubles for Sunday’s Elite Eight exit.
“This year, going into this season, we had a lot of weapons," Harrison Barnes said. “We just didn’t have them all at the end. That was the most devastating thing. We didn’t have Kendall, we didn’t have Dex, we didn’t have Leslie. That’s no excuse. We had an opportunity to win it, we just didn’t.”
North Carolina basketball is about winning games and winning championships. That’s the reason opposing fan bases, including rivals down the street in Durham and Raleigh, cheer like their hair is on fire for UNC to end its season with a loss.
The lure of the North Carolina basketball program for high school prospects is magnetic. Success on the court, a constant national spotlight and even idol-like status on campus presents a package that few other schools can match.
The downside is the uncompromising expectations. Consider this Monday morning tweet from Marshall: “32-6, Elite 8, acc champs... feels like we went to the NIT.”
Roy Williams has increased the pressure surrounding the program by adding another layer to Dean Smith’s wrought iron foundation. Williams has been to more Elite Eights (6) in nine seasons at UNC than Tobacco Road neighbors N.C. State (5) and Wake Forest (5) have been in their programs’ history.
North Carolina basketball is also about so much more, though. Smith made sure of that by creating a unique atmosphere that has interwoven seven decades of Tar Heels into one lasting family. While wins and titles serve as the tangible benefits, it’s the growth and development of young men that Smith ultimately sought out in building this UNC program.
Williams is a byproduct of Smith’s approach. And while the Tar Heel head coach has earned criticism for his lack of offensive adjustments during the final minutes of Sunday’s Elite Eight loss to Kansas, it would be regrettable if that lingering critique overshadowed one of the better coaching jobs of his career.
This North Carolina team lost at Florida State by 33 points on Jan. 14 and then lost its starting two-guard and backup point five days later at Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels took the floor against Kansas – who was boasting a starting five that has not missed a game this season – with a third-string point guard in Stilman White, a hobbled backup two-guard in Reggie Bullock and an even more hobbled John Henson, complete with a pain shot and numbing cream for his left wrist.
And North Carolina was a missed free throw away from tying the game at 68 with 3:58 to play.
“We had to fight through it,” Strickland said following the game. “When Kendall went down, it was heartbreaking. When John couldn’t play, it was heartbreaking, and when Leslie and me couldn’t play, it was heartbreaking. But I think everybody did a great job of just accepting the fact that we’re not going to have key players playing… Things happen.”
McDonald stressed that harping on the “what-ifs” would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was a built-in excuse that would allow this team an easy out if it fell short of its goal in New Orleans. The Tar Heels had no other option than to block out that line of thinking.
“That’s all we could do,” McDonald said. “You can’t dwell on things too long, because you lose focus. If we wanted to sit back and have a pity party and vent that three of our guards are out instead of focusing on the other teams, then we would have lost a long time ago before we got to the Elite Eight.”
In reality, as soon as Marshall hit the Greensboro Coliseum floor with 10:56 remaining against Creighton 10 days ago, most assumed that the cards were stacked against the Tar Heels this season, for whatever reason.
Several players leaned on their faith in attempting to rationalize how this year fell apart not by internal collapse, but by sheer attrition.
“My faith is something that’s very important to me,” Zeller said. “It’s gotten me through a lot. I know that God has got a purpose and a reason for everything that happens. I don’t know what the purpose or reason here is, but he’s got a reason. So you’ve just got to learn from it and move on.”
The emotions in the North Carolina locker room were random depending on the moment, shifting from pride to joy to pain.
“I’m upset because I didn’t play,” Strickland said. “I wanted to be out there so much. I was yelling at the top of my lungs from the sidelines just wanting to be out there with my team. I felt like I could do a lot of things on defense and offense to help my team win this game.
“But I’m happy that we came this far without key players. We fought and did almost everything we could do out there. We made it to the Elite Eight without key players. It’s all mixed emotions, but at the same time, you’ve just got to accept the fact that things happen and you’ve got to fight through it. I think we did a good job with that.”
The record books will always denote an Elite Eight appearance for the 2011-12 North Carolina squad, but the Tar Heels nearly pulled off one of the more improbable storylines in the program’s history.