Maybe North Carolina’s Season Hasn’t Been That Bad
February, in general, sucks.
It’s cold, it’s normally just dark and dreary outside, it’s the last month before we start to flirt with spring in March. It’s a bad month, and we should all be thankful it’s the shortest month of the year.
So, in hindsight, maybe the North Carolina Tar Heels just had a bad month.
At some point in February, everyone seemed to have their own hot take about this year’s Carolina basketball team. They’re too soft. They can’t put it together. They just weren’t that good.
North Carolina lost 11 games this season, including 4 in February to Virginia, Pittsburgh, Duke, and maybe most embarrassingly, N.C. State at home. February was a trying month for anyone associated with North Carolina: Current and former players, coaches, fans, and anyone in between. The Carolina community struggled to cope with the loss of legendary head coach Dean Smith, the man who built the basketball program, and more importantly set a standard for off-court excellence that few will ever achieve.
On-court, February changed our perception of this year’s team. North Carolina went 3-4, with the wins coming against lowly Boston College, Georgia Tech, and (a somewhat strong) Miami. More importantly, it seemed like the team couldn’t close out games. The Tar Heels carried a lead into halftime against Virginia, only to fall behind by double digits midway through the second half. North Carolina led Duke with just 3 minutes to play, and failed to put the Blue Devils away, eventually losing in overtime. And the Heels couldn’t close the gap against N.C. State despite a second-half run that ignited the Dean Smith Center crowd, falling to the Wolfpack at home for the first time in the Roy Williams era.
And March started out very much like February. After a pair of wins, the Tar Heels hosted Duke on senior night, with College Gameday in town to get Chapel Hill even more hype about the biggest game of the season.
And one more time, North Carolina blew a second-half lead.
This all came on the heels of the biggest collapse of the season for North Carolina: An 18-point second-half lead vanishing before the Tar Heels’ eyes in the KFC Yum! Center as Louisville stormed back to beat North Carolina in overtime.
That loss seemed to be the catalyst for the collapse of the Carolina season. It deflated a once-confident North Carolina team, and led to the aforementioned 3-4 stretch in February.
Now, as North Carolina prepares for a Sweet 16 game against the Wisconsin Badgers, the perception of this team has completely changed. Or, at least it should be.
There are 16 teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament. Of those 16, six are some of North Carolina’s opponents from the regular season: Duke (x2), N.C. State (x2), UCLA, Kentucky, Notre Dame (x2) and Louisville (x3). These teams accounted for 7 of North Carolina’s 11 losses on the season. In addition, Iowa, Butler and Virginia played in the Round of 32, which means 10 of the 11 teams North Carolina lost to this season won at least one NCAA Tournament game. While an 11-loss season is still disappointing, North Carolina wasn’t losing games to cupcakes (exception: Pittsburgh), and maybe going full #FireRoy mode after each loss was a bit harsh.
This isn’t even mentioning the recent play of the Tar Heels themselves. North Carolina elevated itself in the ACC Tournament, exorcising demons against Louisville and Virginia before finally running out of gas against Notre Dame. In the Louisville and Virginia games, the Tar Heels found themselves in the same position as the regular season: Ahead by a just a few points with time ticking down, North Carolina let Louisville and Virginia back into each respective game, before finally closing out the two tough teams. It gave the team confidence, and propelled them into a favorable 4th seed, with Harvard and Arkansas on the horizon.
Neither game was pretty, but North Carolina held off the Crimson and Razorbacks, again finishing close games against postseason-worthy teams, and advanced to the Sweet 16, where they will meet Wisconsin. And, given how the past month has gone, why can’t Carolina beat the Badgers? In February, this team proved they can hang in with some of the best teams the country has to offer; in March, they’ve proven they’re capable of beating these same teams. And of those teams Carolina lost to, almost all games the Tar Heels led in the second half, or closed in on a deficit and fell just short.
The difference between now and a month ago is that Carolina is closing these games out. If North Carolina has a lead in the second half against Wisconsin, I’m suddenly confident they can hang on. And they believe that too.
So, maybe this season wasn’t all that bad. Maybe this was a team that just had to learn how to close, and did so just in time for a postseason run. Maybe we should hold off our mid-season takes about firing Roy, or the team not having heart, or maybe we should believe when we’re told a star player is struggling with a nagging injury, and he’ll return to form when he’s healthy.
Maybe we should just sit back and enjoy the process of a team continuing to grow.