"It was the best of times and it was the worst of times" Charles Dickens once wrote.
For North Carolina this weekend the best could easily get swallowed by a sour ending. Instinctively there is overreaction, assignment of blame and all sorts of irrational ranting that too often places the burden of the loss of one team without properly crediting the victors. UNC loss to Notre Dame was disappointing to say the least but it did not occur in a vacuum.
The ACC Tournament, especially for the top five teams was an NCAA regional. When the seedings for the NCAA Tournament are released on Sunday evening, the five teams that made up the top of the ACC will likely find their NCAA seed will match the one for the ACC Tournament. Virginia is likely to be a #1 seed, Duke may also get a #1 or may slip to #2. Notre Dame has been projected as a #3 and could even move up. Louisville and UNC both are likely headed for #4 seeds.
In that respect what UNC did this weekend was play four rounds of an NCAA Tournament regional complete with the same caliber competition in a four day span. Whatever #13 seed UNC will likely face in the NCAA Tournament should be better than Boston College but probably doesn't have a player like Olivier Hanlan. UNC's game versus Louisville was very much what a second round game will look like. On Friday night, UNC went toe-to-toe with the #1 seed in the region and won to advance to the "regional final." In the final the Heels bowed out to a very good Notre Dame team with one of the best offenses in the country. Said Notre Dame team also played one fewer games and instead of playing these four games on back-to-back weekends, it was all on four consecutive days.
If I told you before the season UNC would beat Louisville and Virginia in the ACC Tournament and then lose to one of the best offensive teams this season, you'd probably call it a disappointing result but still believe UNC was a very capable team for the NCAA Tournament. To take the ACC Tournament as an NCAA regional further, if I told you UNC would be the #13, #5 and #1 seeds but lose to the #3 seed in a hard fought regional final, you'd be disappointed but accept UNC as having done well this season.
All of this is to say the context certainly matter as does weighing what happened against reasonable expectations. If UNC went through two weeks of ACC play going 3-1 against the teams it played this weekend, that would be a great two weeks. What really stings is losing a title game which is far more difficult to accept than a regular season one. The other obstacle is the even larger context of the season as a whole which has UNC now at 11 losses and a handful of games that simply didn't break the right way. If UNC were at 6-7 losses, it might be a more tolerable result, especially if the Heels were set for an even higher NCAA Tournament seed.
The other aspect of this is the face Notre Dame is in fact really, really good. The offensive run the Irish went on to flip UNC's eight point lead into 13 point deficit was incredibly impressive and one few teams could stop. Attention will turn to what UNC did wrong whether it be perimeter defense or turnovers or Roy Williams coaching and that's unfortunate. Notre Dame won the game by simply playing better at crunch time. And perhaps more frustrating than the aspects of UNC's play people usually complain about is the fact UNC turned the ball over at an alarming rate against a not-so-good defense. Notre Dame's defensive TO% of 17.4 isn't the modicum of defensive prowess yet Notre Dame forced multiple miscues down the stretch. The nature of Notre Dame's offense meant UNC needed a near perfect offensive game to keep pace. When UNC finally missed a beat, it was enough for the Irish to open the door and push ahead.
The bottom line is UNC simply lost to a better team or rather a team that made the necessary plays. UNC failed in this regard but not before showing some resiliency and toughness in a high pressure context. There is obviously a larger program conversation that can be had regarding UNC being behind the likes of Notre Dame though it is important to remember the Irish are relying on senior leaders who were able to maintain poise more easily. UNC is amid period where the recruiting hasn't been at nearly the same elite talent levels as the past. That puts the Tar Heels in a place to rely player development and experience to compensate for the talent difference. At the very least this weekend showed some of that development and growth into an experienced team is starting to occur.
The great thing about college basketball is the NCAA Tournament provides an opportunity for a team like UNC to make a run. The match-ups will matter a great deal since UNC doesn't quite have the margin of error it may have in previous seasons where the Tar Heels made deep postseason runs. The 2014-15 Tar Heels have that door open before them with a couple of caveats. The first is the match-up matter. Notre Dame, aside from being very good was also a tough team for UNC to defend The lack of Irish size was more than compensated by an offense that could spread the floor and had a point guard that gave the Heels a taste of what playing Ty Lawson was like. The other significant caveat is does UNC's ACC Tournament play truly constitute a true step forward from where the Tar Heels lived for most of the season?
If Brice Johnson's responses to questions after the ACC title game are an indication, the Heels may have truly clicked. Comments after prior losses centered on the team not having given the effort or shown toughness. After the loss to Notre Dame, the responses were of disappointment over a handful of plays they didn't make. At least in this instance the talk has shifted from the mental and emotional aspects to ones regarding execution.
It is important to note that what UNC did this weekend is the sort of locking in we are accustomed to finding in a Roy Williams team a full month earlier on the calendar. Injuries on the team and specifically to Marcus Paige kept the Tar Heels from being able to practice adequately as a team. Paige in particular is a different player now. While he managed some solid numbers in ACC play, the way he is moving on the court and his ability to make certain plays has certainly been upgraded. Because of his health issues, getting Paige into a groove that could allow the other pieces to fall into place wasn't possibly until very recently. Now that it appears the junior guard is on point(no pun intended) the rest of the team is responding.
In short, this Tar Heel team has endured a weird season but not without some tangible reasons. It is also a team that has a shot to embark on an NCAA Tournament run that could redeem the season. In college basketball's postseason, the significant achievements in ascending order are conference title, Final Four, national title. At UNC the eye is always on the latter of those three with a first one being a nice thing to have if there are bigger fish to fry. UNC has been without a significant postseason success since 2009 so snagging an ACC title would have been a nice way to break the drought.
It didn't work out that way because Notre Dame was just a little better and the Tar Heels are still not quite where they need to be to handle every match-up they face. However what the past weekend showed us is this group of UNC players are indeed growing up quite a bit and closer to fulfilling its potential than they were before. The Tar Heels' four days in Greensboro were immensely challenging and to win all four would have been a monumental feat. Yet the Tar Heels were right there and at the very least, found out how good they can really be with the season's most important games still to come.