Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is normally our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead. This week, however, there is a change of plans.
As the year draws to a close, an opportunity for reflection, perspective, and anticipation arises. Perhaps a bit of nostalgia can also be thrown in for good measure. 'Tis the season for fond memories. We will save the resolutions for next week.
UNC Football: In the immortal words of Frank Costanza, “I feel reborn. I’m like a Phoenix, rising from Arizona.”
This story has been often repeated but what the heck, its the holidays. Back to back 9 loss seasons with a combined 5-18 record. Two of those wins against the FCS Catamounts of Western Carolina. This was a team in disarray. There were lots of close games, but no bowl game in the last two years, no positive momentum for the future, and frankly, no hope. This was a program in need of a significant change and jump start.
Enter Mack Brown. In some ways it seems like he must have been grooming this team for years. In other ways, it feels like he has only been in town a few weeks. Larry Fedora was fired immediately after the end of the season on November 25, 2018. Mack Brown was hired two days later, which means his second stint at North Carolina has just now entered its 14th month.
What a difference a year makes.
Known as a great recruiter, Coach Brown first recruited an outstanding coaching staff including offensive coordinator Phil Longo and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman. That staff hit the road very late in the recruiting process and had a tremendous amount of success, including the December 2018 signing of Sam Howell. Howell was a longtime Florida State commit that instead stayed home in North Carolina to compete for the starting quarterback job for the Heels.
Enrolling early, the quarterback race seemed to be among Howell, Cade Fortin, and Jace Ruder. Finally, in very late August, Howell emerged as the starter. There were, of course, significant ramifications from this preseason coaching decision. First, Fortin immediately initiated his transfer. Second, Howell had an incredible year.
As a true freshman, Howell threw for over 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns. The former is an ACC true freshman record. The latter is a FBS true freshman record. Talk about a bright future: Howell seems to be brimming with both confidence and potential.
So what of 2017 redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt? Surratt made the improbable conversion to linebacker and improved throughout the year. Always seeming to be in the right place at the right time, Surratt was a First Team All-ACC defender who finished with a team high 115 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and one very memorable interception against Duke. And he might be returning for his senior season, per a Brown conference where he said every junior had told him they were returning.
In a season full of memorable comebacks, close games, and a couple of potentially soul-crushing defeats to Virginia Tech in six overtimes and to Clemson with a failed two point conversion, it is ultimately the leadership and perseverance that should be be remembered. Two wins to close the season and become bowl eligible, a blowout bowl victory, an unbelievable recruiting class, and the prospect of a young and improving team have energized the fan base and raised national expectations. 2020 looks to be a fun year.
UNC Basketball: This story is still developing.
College basketball seasons are more difficult to evaluate on a calendar year basis because they run from November until April. This timing can also skew perspectives. For example, think to one year ago and remember how great last year’s team was at this time. Right? Not exactly. At the end of December, the 2018-19 Tar Heels were a mere 9-3 and only 1-2 against ranked opponents. They were generally scoring a lot of points under the two-headed terror of fifth year senior Cameron Johnson and freshman Coby White, but this was far from an invincible squad.
Yet, Roy Williams was just then doing what Roy Williams does. He was playing deep into his bench and balancing minutes while experimenting with lineups. He was developing a team that would only lose two games for the entire rest of the regular season on its way to a regular season ACC tie and a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Tragedy struck on a Friday evening in the second week of the tournament when a red-hot Auburn squad shot its way past the flu-stricken Heels. What looked like yet another certain Final Four run (and maybe even a national championship) was snuffed out by the cold reality of the tournament.
As The Hangover well knows, there was then a sudden dose of reality. Lost somewhere in the successful run of the year was the lingering truth of college athletics; players graduate or sometimes leave early. In this case, six of them.
Thus began the summer of rebuilding. Freshman sensation Cole Anthony was on his way along with highly touted recruit Armando Bacot. Two other recruits, Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis were injury questions. Coach Williams thus turned to the transfer portal and won over Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce. All seemed to be right in Chapel Hill heading into another expected deep tournament run of a season.
Championships, however, are not awarded in July or August. Just ask any team claiming multiple one-and-done recruits who win the summer press awards and then fizzle out early in the spring. Five early victories had fans excited even though the low scoring team was at least unnerving.
Then came the injuries. And then the losses. Five out of six. Four of those, of course, are top 10 teams nationally (and two of those were on the road), but they are losses all the same.
The truth is that this team has a lot of similarities with last year’s. Only one top 25 win before January. Five losses this year, three last year. Plenty of question marks around the floor. Last year the worries were on defense and this year they are on offense. Keep in mind, however, that the losses last year mostly came when the offense failed (losses in all five games that the team scored under 75 points). This is just a reminder that December strengths can be New Year weaknesses.
The story for this team is yet to be written but the calendar certainly turns with apprehension. In order to be successful, the team needs to be healthy, they need to continue to develop, and they need to play together. In other words, they need Roy Williams to be Roy Williams.
Happy New Year and Go Heels!