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UNC vs. Auburn: Three Things Learned

It’s the end of what was ultimately a really fun year for the Tar Heels.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Tar Heels went into the Sweet Sixteen as one of the hottest teams in the country. Yes, they lost to Duke back in Charlotte, but their first two games of the NCAA Tournament showed that they were on the upswing to do some great things in the second weekend. What did we get instead? A dangerous Auburn team, illness plaguing the team, and really, a game that will be hard to forget for a really, really long time. Yes one could say that about the Texas A&M game last year, but this one for sure has a different feel. The feel that thing really could’ve been different, but we will simply never know if that’s true.

This one was a tough one to watch knowing that Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, and whoever you may believe is a one-and-done player will never put on a Carolina uniform again. It stings a lot, but the silver lining with Maye and Williams is that they’ve reached the top of the college basketball world before. They wanted more, we wanted more, but destiny had other plans.

With that said, let’s take a look at a few things that were catastrophic in Carolina’s final game of the season.

Auburn’s Master Plan was UNC’s Biggest Weakness

All year long, we’ve talked about the turnover issues that have caused a lot of problems for the Tar Heels. It was hard to shake the feeling that ultimately that very issue would be what ended up hurting them in a big way at some point, and that point arrived last night.

Auburn is notorious for forcing turnovers, and they managed to do just that against Carolina. While 14 turnovers is far from their worst this year, 19 of Auburn’s points came off of those turnovers. Given that the Heels lost by 17, one could say the problem literally gave the Tigers the win. Is that oversimplifying things? Possibly, but it’s hard to deny that it’s very difficult to give teams that many points and find a way to win games.

Truth be told, however, a lot of credit for what happened has to go to Auburn. They were causing all kinds of chaos on the defensive side of the ball, attacking the dribble in ways that we in ACC country have really only seen from Duke. They were fast, they were determined, and they made it really difficult for the Heels to find any kind of sustainable rhythm. It’s more and more understandable how they managed to win the SEC Tournament championship.

The Elephant in the Room

While fans and analysts don’t like to consider these types of things, primarily because of that one guy that used to wear number 23 for the Tar Heels decades ago, the truth is the Tar Heels weren’t 100% healthy. No, not injury-wise, but it appears that some kind of illness made its way around the team. Nassir Little reportedly had “flu-like symptoms” when Roy Williams spoke with the media a couple of days ago, and he said that it was so bad that Little was barely able to pick up a fork. It was a wonder that he managed to play last night, especially considering what he said in the locker room after the game:

However, it appears that things somehow got worse than that. Cameron Johnson was unable to do the postgame press conference following the Auburn game because he was throwing up in the locker room. Williams said both Little and Johnson had fevers over 100. Johnson finished the game with 15 points and 5 rebounds, but at times looked like something wasn’t completely right while he was on the floor. One has to wonder who else on the team was sick, as Roy Williams had some rather interesting lineups out on the floor at times.

There’s a saying that excuses are monuments of nothingness that build bridges to nowhere, and those that use these tools of incompetence are masters of nothing. Don’t get me wrong, Auburn outplayed the Heels in a big way and they deserved every bit of that victory. However, it’s clear that health had some impact on the game, and it’s a really unfortunate way for Johnson to end his UNC career.

Was Nassir Little the Key All Along?

Going into the NCAA Tournament, the hope within Tar Heel Nation was that freshman forward Nassir Little would find a way to get things going. He most certainly had a fantastic first weekend, scoring 17 points against Iona, and 20 against Washington. Unfortunately, he was unable to get a whole lot going against Auburn, and the lack of production may have been one of the biggest factors of the game.

Little finished the game last night with 4 points and 3 rebounds, and made 2 of his 7 shots. Auburn did a good job of not letting him drive, and he most certainly had to work for both of his baskets. There will forever be the question of how he would’ve performed if he was actually 100%, but the truth is we will never know. What we do know is that this brings an end to what has been a long, strange freshman year for the guy that was once predicted to be the third-overall pick in the NBA Draft, and the ending was almost too fitting.

One can’t help but feel some form of sympathy for how Little’s season turned out. While he struggled to figure things out right away, he started doing a lot of really good things before suffering an injury during ACC play. That set him back a bit, and once he came back he basically climbed his way back to where he left off by performing really well in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, his body went against him this week, and now it’s a wrap. Life can be cruel sometimes, and it certainly didn’t seem to do Little many favors this season.

As for his future, that is a discussion for another day. Right now there is a lot of hurt, frustration, exhaustion, and literal illness that walked off of the court last night. This year’s team was an amazing one to watch, preferred results or not, and that is how this team will be remembered. While the world was distracted by number one in Durham, we got to enjoy the growth of a deadly point guard with great hair, the athleticism of a great kid from Florida, the rejuvenation of a grad student sharpshooter, and all of the “LUUUUKE” chants we could ask for.

Most importantly, though, we experienced family. When they laughed, we laughed. When they hurt, we hurt. When they were hungry, we were hungry. When they won, we won. In the sports world, the brass at the end of the title loves to blind us from seeing the blessings that are around us, but I can truly say that this year’s team was a blessing to witness. It was an extremely fun ride, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year.