Last year, the Friday Food for Thought weekly series bridged the gap between the end of college basketball in April and the beginning of football in September. The concept was to provide a weekly topic of debate for discussion over the weekend. Suggested drink pairings were included to assist in the weekend discourse.
This year, the format is changing. Instead of capping off the week, the subject of discussion will tee it up with a Monday post. More excitingly, the article will pair with Chad Floyd’s excellent podcasts to bring the topic to life. As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles! Now, on with the show.
The Debate for the week of April 15: Was the 2018-2019 Carolina basketball season a success?
Point: Of course it was.
In October, the 2018-19 Tar Heels were picked to finish third in the ACC and received only 20 of the 121 first place votes. They were seventh nationally in the preseason Coaches poll and eighth in the AP poll. Luke Maye was the only player on the pre-season first or second team from Carolina and Coby White received only 2 votes for ACC freshman of the year, placing fifth.
In other words, this looked like a very good but not great team who would be strong in the conference and nationally. The final product easily exceeded high expectations.
Any year where the team wins an end of season championship is a successful year. An incredible 16-2 regular conference season, including a historic 9-0 on the road, yielded a shared title with Virginia. That in and of itself is enough to consider the season a success. A winning campaign through the best conference in the country is fantastic.
The team was more than the regular season title, however. There were plenty of impressive wins including a non-conference home victory against future NCAA number 1 seed Gonzaga and the February revenge game at Louisville. The regular season home loss to Virginia was a very competitive game that pushed the future national champion.
For many fans, the measure of a season falls solely to the games against Duke. This looked to be a particularly difficult year with the talent and rankings of the incoming freshmen in Durham. I suspect that at the beginning of the year, many would have thought it preposterous that in three games, Carolina would beat Duke by a combined total of 24 points. And don’t even start with that asterisk nonsense, the final “full strength” match-up was a 1 point loss where the Heels had the ball on the last possession. The Heels were clearly a superior team to Duke this year, which makes the season a resounding success.
Additionally, the mark of a team’s progress can be measured in the improvement of its individual components. Cameron Johnson ruled the court to take home First Team-All ACC honors (and an argument for player of the year). Luke Maye and Coby White both made Second Team. White also made the All Freshman Team while Nassir Little finished fourth in the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Kenny Williams was robbed by missing the All Defensive Team and Coach Williams was stunningly third in Coach of the Year balloting, although he did win the National Coach of the Year from USA Today. In short, the development of so many individuals on the team proves the season was a remarkable success.
Finally, although it may not equate to “success”, the team was certainly entertaining. A fast paced offense with balanced scoring and great shooters is the essence of quality basketball. The Heels had it all this year.
Counterpoint: There is no way 2018-19 could be considered a success.
College basketball is a tournament sport, plain and simple. The entire regular season is about getting the team ready for tournaments and placing them in the best possible position to win. The official ACC Champion is the tournament champion, not the regular season victor (perhaps a debate for another day?). The NCAA Champion is not the team that is ranked highest at the end of the regular season (thank heavens that is the case this year), it is the team that survives the longest in the tournament. Therefore, the measure of success for a season must be related to tournament participation.
In neither the ACC nor the NCAA tournaments did the Heels advance as far as their seeding indicated. A close semi-final loss in the ACC Tournament is not indicative of the season as a whole. A blowout in the Sweet Sixteen just might be. It is a shame that the entire scorecard for the season can come down to a single game, but that is the excitement of March and the essence of why college basketball has the best playoffs in sports.
Carolina started the season ranked in the top ten nationally (Auburn was 11 and 12 in the two polls). They climbed toward the end of the year to finish the regular season at 3. That is a Final Four-type ranking and they were rewarded with a number 1 seed. They played the second highest seeded team left in the field in their only game in Kansas City. Simply put, they failed to play to their ranking.
For as good as Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams have been, they finished the last two NCAA tournaments with a combined record of 3-2 despite being a number 2 and number 1 seed. I know the counter is that anyone can have a bad game and things happen (like the flu), but to discount the most important game of the year with non-performance excuses does a disservice to the sport.
This is not to say that a Championship is the only way to have a successful season. Even as spoiled as we are as Tar Heel fans, winning it all is very difficult and a rarity. But for a team to be as good as Carolina with such a favorable seed not to even make the Regional Final is a disappointment. To be blown out before that point is even worse.
With five of the team’s top six players graduating or eyeing early entry to the NBA, this was the time for the Heels to make a deep run and put aside the early exit from 2018 before being forced to rebuild. If one does not think the final game of the season matters, find a Virginia fan and ask about the last two years. Carolina needed to make the Final Four to be a success this year.
Time for you to render a verdict. Were the 2018-19 Tar Heels a success or were they found lacking? Weigh in below!