The question troubling many Tar Heel fans and observers is how this season should be viewed if North Carolina is able to win for the seventh time in nine games on Thursday to claim the NIT title.
The blindly loyal segment of the fan base would undoubtedly see that accomplishment as the deserved icing on a bittersweet cake, while the constant skeptics would like to warn others not to let a faux championship distort their memories of what actually occurred this season.
UNC head coach Roy Williams spoke for everyone associated with the North Carolina program on Wednesday when he told reporters, “Our goal at the start of the year was not to be here.”
That comment wasn’t intended to be a dig at the NIT, and Williams reiterated that point several times during his press conference at the Marriott Marquis, but the truth remains –
this season was an unmitigated disaster.
“If we can win this championship tomorrow, I think that bittersweet will definitely be the right word for it,” said senior forward Deon Thompson, who will become the NCAA’s all-time leader in games played (152) on Thursday night. “This is where it all started this season with us losing to Syracuse, and for us to come back here after not making the NCAA Tournament and finding ourselves in the NIT championship game makes it bittersweet.”
North Carolina’s preseason checklist for a return to the NCAA Tournament included steady point guard play, quality outside shooting and strong leadership. Most took post dominance and defensive efficiency as givens back in October, but by late January, it was clear that all five of the aforementioned topics were nothing more than tarnished pieces of hope.
While ABC fans reveled in North Carolina’s struggles, plenty of Tar Heel fans simply wanted the season to end. Ripping the bandage off seemed like a more humane route, as opposed to extending the agony with a bid to the NIT.
That’s one of the reasons this postseason run reeks with irony. If UNC had finished the season with a 16-16 mark just days removed from the 82-50 annihilation in Durham, several months of rage and disappointment would be justified.
As Williams suggested on Wednesday, a near fitting end to this campaign would have occurred if Will Graves had been called for a tripping foul in the final seconds of Tuesday’s overtime win over Rhode Island and the Rams had connected on a pair of free throws to reverse the final result.
But you have to give the Tar Heels credit. It would have been easy to just show up against William & Mary, Mississippi State, UAB or Rhode Island and punch your ticket, pretend to have fun and get back home as quickly as possible.
Instead, North Carolina has essentially used the NIT as a three-week psychotherapy session, rebuilding its confidence while comprehending the significance of the situation.
“I really felt like we let a lot of people down, ourselves included,” sophomore point guard Larry Drew said.
Above all else, this postseason run has been about personal growth. During the season, players were criticized for making poor decisions and taking bad shots, but the reason for the questionable plays stemmed from a lack of confidence that permeated every facet of this program.
And even though it took far too long for that worm to turn, the NIT has delivered a proving ground that the Tar Heels have embraced. Drew has emerged as a player that has earned his head coach’s trust in late-game situations, defensive tenacity and effort has become more of a consistent attribute and most importantly, the players are having fun on the court and in the locker room again.
“Where we are now is a good feeling,” Williams said. “It is not going to erase some of the problems that we’ve had, but it is a very good feeling… If we can finish and have a wonderful feeling at the end, we’re going to feel better than all of those teams in the country that did not make that 65-team field.”
As Williams alluded to, don't think for a second that any of this postseason success makes amends for what happened during the regular season, because it doesn’t. But the sharp edges that once surrounded the 2009-10 campaign have been dulled just enough to not draw blood if anyone happens upon this history lesson in that dusty back corner of North Carolina’s grand basketball museum.