Hello. My name is Doc and I was an NIT naysayer.
OK, I admit it. I was one of those folks who thought the season was over and was kind of hoping UNC would not receive an NIT bid, or would turn it down (assuming you can even turn it down). At 16-15 in the regular season and after a disappointing loss in the ACC Tournament, I didn't think my eyes could bleed any more than they already had through 32 games, and my heart just wasn't in it for an NIT embarrassment. Plus, after 14 years of coaching high school and college basketball, I thought I could tell when a team was just done. From Larry Drew's awful body language to Deon Thompson's lack of heart to Dexter Strickland having the shanks, I just knew it needed to be over. Nothing good was going to come out of stretching this thing out one more game.
It appears I may have been mistaken.
How this team went from nearly pathetic to learning how to scratch and claw for wins in less than a week's time is beyond me. I'm sure a sports psychology honors thesis will one day be written about how the Tar Heels went from an also-ran to pretty doggoned competitive in such short order. Carolina is still struggling with issues that have plagued them all season, but they are learning to manage their shortcomings and, more important, they are hustling, diving after loose balls, making better decisions, and appearing to enjoy themselves.
Certainly the weight of expectations was high, and nearly all observers agree that UNC was overrated at the beginning of the season. But it was not unreasonable to expect players to grow, fill their roles, and be competitive throughout the year. For whatever reason that did not happen, until last week. UNC on March 25 looks like the team most people expected to see on January 25, which is to say not doing everything right or everything well, but well enough to win games and get better from week to week.
It has been a fortnight of redemption for those who received much of the blame for the fall from grace. Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard helped lead the Heels past William & Mary and Larry Drew made the game-winner against Mississippi State. Along the way, Tyler Zeller and John Henson have played as part of the strong front line everyone expected at the start of the season, and Dexter Strickland and Will Graves have stepped up to make key shots and big buckets. And not getting a lot of glory for the team's NIT play so far is Roy Williams, who must receive credit for keeping the thing in the road and moving forward.
Whatever it was, either the complete relief of not making the NCAAs and having no pressure, or the tiny hotel rooms with twin beds, or just finally realizing, as Jimmy Chitwood said in Hoosiers, "it's about time I started playing ball," I must admit I have enjoyed watching Carolina basketball again. The level of play in the NIT has washed out some of the sour taste from the season and gives Roy a chip to use in the off-season preparations. This is a much better way to end the season than bitter and angry after the Duke and Georgia Tech losses.
So I can admit it. I was an NIT naysayer - and I was wrong.