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One of the Best Teams to Never Win It: The 2012 Tar Heels

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This star-studded team should be remembered as champions, but an infuriating injury shattered that dream.

Marquette v North Carolina Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

A couple of days ago I revisited the 2015-16 North Carolina Tar Heels’ season and discussed how they were one of the best teams to never win it all. They were a team that was hard to talk about because of how everything ended, but unfortunately there’s another one of those teams that we must discuss. This particular team had an abundance of NBA talent, yet fell victim to one of the most infuriating season endings of all time. The worst part? It had nothing to do with the final game of the season. Seriously, who let me cover both of these teams with tragic endings?

If you haven’t figured it out by now and/or prevented yourself from reading the headline to build up suspense, I am of course talking about the 2011-12 Tar Heels. This team oozed talent, was the preseason No. 1 team, breezed through most of the regular season, and finished in the AP top 10 going into postseason play. Let’s dive into what this team was, and why things went so terribly, terribly wrong.

Tale of the Tape

Overall Record: 32-6

ACC Record: 14-2

Conference Finish: 1st place

ACC Tournament Result: Runner-up

Record vs. Duke: 1-1

NCAA Tournament Finish: Elite Eight

Key Players (w/Per Game Averages)

Harrison Barnes: 17.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists

Tyler Zeller: 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists

John Henson: 13.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists

Kendall Marshall: 8.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 9.8 assists

Best Win

88-70 win at Duke

Worst Loss

90-80 loss vs. UNLV

Honorable mention: 90-57 loss at Florida State

What Went Right

Whenever I think about the 2012 Tar Heels, my mind immediately goes to “NBA-level talent”. Every now and then Blue Blood teams are blessed with a team that looks like it was created in NBA 2K with the attribute sliders turned all the way up. In the college basketball universe this was one of those teams, and they had a good time letting everyone know they were on a mission.

To ask what went right for this team, it all starts with Harrison Barnes. The star sophomore forward had a ton of hype surrounding his two-year career at Carolina, and in my opinion he lived up to it In 2012. He finished the season NABC second-team All-American as well as first-team All-American before becoming the 7th overall draft pick in the NBA Draft. He was joined in the draft by teammates Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, and John Henson (so basically, all of the key players mentioned above).

As a team, the Heels would escape the non-conference season with just two losses, one being to UNLV and the other against No. 1 Kentucky in a game that went wire to wire. From there they would go on to lose just two more games in the regular season to Florida State and Duke, and finished things off by ruining Senior Night for Duke 88-70 to win the ACC regular season title. In the ACC Tournament they coasted by Maryland and eked it out against NC State before suffering a less-embarrassing-than-the-first-time loss to Florida State. This unfortunately takes us into the grim portion of this story.

What Went Wrong

Creighton.

Be honest: every time you hear the name of that school, your blood still boils. Nails are spit from your mouth, fire shoots out of your eyes, and you may even throw a thing or two just out of pure anger. The Villanova game was one thing, and K*** J****** at least did what he did cleanly and without anybody getting hurt. This though? This is the reason why anger management was invented.

After easily putting away Vermont to open the NCAA Tournament, the Heels went on to take on Creighton in the Round of 32. John Henson returned to action after suffering an injury to his hand, which ended up having to withstand a few cheap shots from the Bluejays. What kind of cheap shots, you ask? Here’s at least one example:

Regardless, UNC finished the first half with an eight-point lead and kept their foot on the gas in the second. However, with less than 11 minutes to go in the game Kendall Marshall would go up for a layup and get a not-so-subtle push that forced him to land on his right wrist.

The result of the play was a broken wrist, but somehow Marshall would go on to finish the game anyway. He finished with 18 points, 11 assists, and made 7 of his 8 field goal attempts.

Unfortunately we all know how the rest of the story goes: that was the last time we saw Kendall Marshall set foot on the court in a Carolina uniform, and it’s all because of (insert 30 seconds worth of swearing here) Creighton. Stillman White stepped in for him for the rest of the NCAA Tournament, and the result was an overtime win against Ohio in the Sweet 16, and a convincing loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight. What White was able to do was highly admirable, as he finished the game against the Jayhawks with 7 assists and zero turnovers, but not having Marshall against Kansas was nothing short of tragic. This team was a Final Four team, and maybe even a national championship team, but we’ll never know what the real result would’ve been thanks to (swears for another 30 seconds) Creighton.

Alright, now that I’m all fired up, I’m going to go punch a pillow and cry for a while. Let me know which team that we’ve discussed so far is your “best team to never win it”, and also share your story of witnessing the sickness that was the 2012 Round of 32 game.