This hasn’t been the season that any of us were hoping for. Heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss, and heaps of season-disrupting injuries. It’s safe to say that the NCAA Tournament is a mirage dancing on the horizon, lending just enough hope to keep us going, just over the next dune (“Just win out!”), but never truly drawing closer.
Even in the badness of this season—the times when we can do nothing but put our heads in our hands and sigh, the buzzer-beaters and season-ending injuries—there are good things to focus on. An old American standard tells us to “Look for the Silver Lining,” and this season has found the Tar Heel faithful in the unfamiliar position of having to heed this advice.
Garrison Brooks has been a rock in the stormy seas of this basketball season. The junior forward has 10 double-doubles of the 27 games he’s played on the season, and has been a necessary source of leadership at times when the team has gone adrift. His steady play is why it’s been so frustrating from time to time when the Tar Heels have seemingly forgotten how to feed the post. In Tuesday’s game against NC State, he stepped up and hit some clutch free throws to seal the win. He’s been genuinely fun to watch, even with the season being what it has been.
Speaking of NC State, it’s never a bad thing to sweep the Wolfpack. It alleviates the sting, at least a little, to beat the team from Raleigh even in such a down year. Watching the Tar Heels fight back from double-digit deficits twice in the course of the game was a nice change from the general script of Carolina building an unexpected lead only to squander it as the last few pinches of sand fell through the hourglass. It was a great reminder of how easily Carolina basketball can draw you in. You could almost forget how many times you’d been burned by believing in this team, and this time the team from Chapel Hill didn’t let us down.
Christian Keeling, the much-maligned mid-major grad transfer, has been on a quiet tear in the month of February. After scoring in double digits only once in the season through the end of January, the shooting guard has found his shot and his confidence. He’s broken ten points in five of the eight contests (at time of writing) in the shortest month of the year, and barely missed double digits (nine points) in two other February games. Heading into yesterday’s game against Syracuse, he was coming off the highest-scoring night of his UNC career that saw him chip in 16 points to help secure the sweep of State. A scoring option other than Cole Anthony on the perimeter has been huge in opening up opposing defenses, and the suddenly-automatic nature of his mid-range game has been a joy to watch.
Cole Anthony, for his part, has provided some very good moments in this less-than-stellar season. Just the simple fact of him coming back to play for the Tar Heels in the midst of so much speculation about his future with the team was a spark, and there have been flashes of the brilliance that the mock draft boards are obviously expecting when they predict Anthony to be a lottery pick. Mind-bending freshman moments and sometimes-frustrating hero ball aside, Anthony is a special player who is most likely approaching the end of his short stay in Chapel Hill, and it’s been good to see him back out on the court.
For all the bad moments of this season—and there have been some very bad ones—there is still Carolina basketball to be found somewhere between the heartbreak and frustration. The game last night doesn’t change that one way or the other.