UNC fans could be forgiven for feeling like they had seen this movie before. And it was a horror movie at that.
Carolina held a working margin over a top-10 team about mid-way through the second half, only to come undone down the stretch and left wondering "what if" once more. Louisville. Duke. Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament championship game. And now Wisconsin in the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. On first glance, the loss to the Badgers was pretty much like the others, but this one was clearly different.
The Heels got the game they wanted against Wisconsin. They got the score into the 70s. They only committed four turnovers, tying a record for fewest in the Roy Williams era (ironically the other record low of four was this season against Pittsburgh, also a UNC loss). Carolina limited the effectiveness of All-American and National Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminksy who did notch 19 points and 8 rebounds but was not dominant. UNC shot 46% from the floor and the team that supposedly couldn't shoot from outside all year was 8-13 from three. The game was right where UNC would want it, and yet the outcome was the same. Carolina couldn't get over the hump and close out the game.
This time, however, the wounds were less self-inflicted and more a function of Wisconsin doing what Wisconsin does so very well. The country's most efficient offensive team proved to be that in posting an offensive efficiency of a whopping 135.7 for the game. From the time UNC took a 7-point lead with 11:11 to play, the Badgers went 8-14 from the floor and 12-13 from the line with only one turnover. In the same 11 minutes, Carolina hit only 4 of 15 shots but were only 1 of 10 from two-points and were out-rebounded 12-8 with just two turnovers, one of which was kind of sketchy.
In other words, this was not like the other games where UNC started throwing the ball all over the gym and making it easy for the opponent. Wisconsin was ruthlessly efficient as they always are and played nearly error-free basketball down the stretch. Though the Heels were not as sharp and had some questionable shot selection during that same time frame, Carolina was right there against one of the nation's elite teams. In fact, this game had the feel of an Elite Eight or Final Four kind of game given the quality of play and how one team absorbed a run and responded with one of their own. Even after the pivotal 9-0 run that gave the Badgers the lead for good, UNC didn't give up and cut the lead to one with under a minute to play and a chance to go two-for-one but the more experienced Badgers simply did what they needed to do to finish and win the game.
It is very hard to interpret this year's 26-12 team. UNC had double-digit losses for the 3rd straight season, which is a first in Roy Williams' career. Injuries hampered the team all season, from Marcus Paige's plantar fasciitis to multiple missed games for Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, to the season-long illness/injury-of-the-week for Kennedy Meeks. The deep bench was not immune from the injury bug either, as Desmond Hubert, Luke Davis, Sasha Seymore, and Stillman White all suffered ailments and UNC was forced to use JV players and former walk-ons in practice. Once the regulars finally got healthy you got the feeling the team was finally starting to get it and you could see glimpses of the top-10 type of team that was expected in Chapel Hill back in November.
Of course the off-the-court issues swirling around the team were a major source of distraction as well. The season opened with the release of the Wainstein Report, and the shadow of possible NCAA action hangs like a sword of Damocles over the program still. Roy Williams suffered deep personal losses with the death of a dear friend and of the face of North Carolina basketball, his mentor Dean Smith. All of these things combined with the on-the-court issues to make for a challenging season.
And yet, when the calendar turned to March, it finally seemed like Carolina was starting to get it. The Heels played probably their best game of the season at Georgia Tech and after a stumble against Duke (where they held a second-half lead), UNC made a solid run through the ACC Tournament that would have been good enough to win it most years, given their wins over Louisville and regular-season champ Virginia, and led Elite Eight team Notre Dame well into the second half before hitting the wall and the Irish simultaneously going into NBA Jam-like fire mode. In the NCAA Tournament, Carolina was challenged by Harvard and where the Heels of February would have caved, the Heels of March dug in and won. Against Arkansas, UNC showed adaptability and went small to find a way to win yet again. In the Sweet Sixteen, Wisconsin was just too good at what they do, and UNC couldn't break through. But their inability to break through this time had more to do with their opponent doing what they do best rather than a UNC implosion. This is the type of game UNC may have played in a regional final or the Final Four had the Heels' regular season produced more than a 4-seed. Even then Wisconsin was the better, more experienced team and would have likely won regardless.
Nevertheless, Carolina played some of its best basketball at the end of the season. Justin Jackson finally emerged as the player many had hoped, and Joel Berry gave outstanding versatility in the backcourt. The ongoing development of Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, and Isiah Hicks gives UNC quality depth and when healthy, Marcus Paige, Kennedy Meeks, and Brice Johnson can be a formidable threesome. All of these pieces are expected to return, along with J.P. Tokoto and Joel James, and all will be a year older and wiser. Now that this team has seen what their capability can be based on their success in March, the future should be very bright for this group of Tar Heels.