One week ago we went through Monday nervous and excited. UNC was a slight favorite over Villanova, enough so there was plenty of belief to go around the Tar Heels would play a tough game but end up as the 2016 NCAA Champions. And when UNC went on a run to close the half and led by five at the break all was going according to plan. Then came a fifteen minute stretch that ranks as one of the Tar Heels' worst of the season putting UNC down by 10 with a little over five minutes left.
If the game had played out with Villanova winning by ten maybe we would have been better off for it. The character Red in The Shawshank Redemption told his friend Andy that hope was a dangerous thing. UNC fans found out just how dangerous it could be when Marcus Paige provided buckets of it as the Tar Heels rallied to tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left. What happened next was excruciating on so many levels and based on my understanding of UNC basketball history, might be the most devastating loss since the 1977 NCAA title game.
It's been a week. A week that has reminded us how much we invest emotionally in teams we follow and how much pain we willing bring upon ourselves with that investment. It's incredibly irrational if not outright stupid but at the same time I am not sure I could have made myself care less or reacted differently. The loss hurt and while it should never be put on the level of real life tragedies the raw emotional reaction at least initially was the feeling of, well, grief.
Unlike real grief, we can move past it much easier because the "loss" isn't a tangible loss and we ultimately understand it's real importance. Speaking for myself I spent random moments over a couple of days playing the "what if" game. A loss decided at the buzzer is like that. Change one play and maybe UNC wins One foul isn't called, one UNC shot falls earlier in the game, Isaiah Hicks goes to guard Kris Jenkins sooner, Jenkins' shot is two inches to the left or right. The list goes on of things we probably tortured ourselves with in the hours and days following Monday night.
Somewhere along the way we put our fanaticism in check and moved past it though not entirely. The depth of the pain associated with this loss is rooted more in our love for this particular group of players. This team was special and deserved a title banner in the rafters to make sure we always remembered them. Seeing Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James miss out on a title made the agony over the loss linger just a bit more. In that respect we were less fans and more members of a large and distant family with deep empathy for a group of people we had come to love. Losing the game wasn't the issue, seeing those players devastated was tough to swallow.
Complicating all of this is the uncertainty about what next season holds. If we know the returning team next year will be a top ten caliber and has the potential to make another Final Four run it helps. We assuage out pain by wrapping ourselves up in the knowledge that next season might not be quite as good but not a drop off a cliff. Had UNC won, we would have been prepared for massive attrition and also gladly accepted 2017 being a rough ride if it meant a 2016 banner in the rafters. Now without the latter we certainly won't no part of the former.
Unfortunately there will likely not be much in the way of resolution on that question for days if not weeks. Until then we wait to hear who will return and who will leave. We wait to see if the NCAA is ever going to do anything productive regarding UNC's case. And we wait for the last remnants of pain from last Monday night to finally subside.
I don't know for sure what will happen with the first two but on the third I think I am there...mostly anyway.