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The Dean’s List: Revisiting expectations of the 2020-21 season

Hindsight can put a lot of things into perspective, and this year’s Tar Heels are no exception.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the announcement of Roy Williams’ retirement. I am deeply saddened by the news, but also am extremely thankful for everything that he has done for the program and for the university. Instead of pulling this article, we will leave it in its original form, but expect an edition of The Dean’s List dedicated to Roy Williams in the near future.

We are now a couple of weeks removed from UNC’s premature exodus from the NCAA Tournament thanks to a beatdown from Wisconsin. There has been a lot going through everyone’s minds since then, especially now that NCAA has entered the most intense form of NBA free agency that we’ve ever seen. It’s been easy to get lost in the weeds of it all, but there’s one thing that perhaps hasn’t been talked about enough when it comes to this season’s Tar Heel team: expectations.

Going into this college basketball season it was hard not to have high expectations. To rewind back to my thoughts before the season started, my belief was that this year’s team would either miss the tournament due to the weirdness of the season, so many freshmen, and poor shooting, or they would hit their ceiling which was making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Truly I leaned more towards the latter scenario in my head, as Roy Williams was bringing in numerous McDonald’s All-Americans, had an ACC Preseason Player of the Year in Garrison Brooks, and players like Anthony Harris and Armando Bacot that we saw so much promise in last season would take a step forward.

Here was the problem: while the losses against Texas and Iowa ended up being very good losses (though we can have a separate conversation about how bitter I am about both of said losses), the losses against NC State and Georgia Tech made me realize that it was time to re-calibrate my expectations. Referring to the game against the Wolfpack specifically, I remember what I saw in that game like it was yesterday. I witnessed a team with four extremely talented bigs and All-American guards get obliterated on ball screens for the first 20 minutes of the game. State was able to get anything they wanted by setting screens and driving to the hoop, and it was at that point that I realized that this team’s ceiling wasn’t the Sweet Sixteen: it was just making the tournament.

Once I came to such an eye-opening epiphany, things actually looked mostly better for the Heels. There were still some bad losses yet to come in Clemson and Marquette, but the losses to Florida State, Virginia, and Syracuse weren’t the most surprising. I mean let’s be honest: we knew Buddy Boeheim was going to torch us for 26 points, because that’s just what he does. I digress, despite these losses UNC still found a way to Beat the Seminoles once, got revenge on NC State, shredded Louisville apart, and swept Duke. They even got in a very good win against a Virginia Tech team that joined UNC as one of the ACC teams to get knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Once it was announced that UNC would play Wisconsin to open March Madness, I knew that was probably all she wrote for the season. If the Badgers didn’t do what they did, Final Four-bound Baylor would’ve ended up doing the exact same thing. Something that isn’t said enough about the NCAA Tournament is that luck really does play a quantifiable role in how far a team can go, and being the eighth seed is never an optimal situation to be in. Well, unless you’re Loyola-Chicago, who we should probably expect to make it to the second weekend as long as Sister Jean is alive.

With all of that said, this year’s Carolina basketball team found a way to meet my most pessimistic expectation, and in ways even exceeded it. The ACC was pretty bad this season, and I think that had a heavy hand in the Heels making it to the Big Dance, but the luck of the draw wasn’t on their side. Is that to say that they would’ve made a run in any other part of the bracket? More than likely the answer is no, but this team could’ve won at least one game. Truly this is a season that is to be remembered but not dwelled on, because at the end of the day it was nothing but chaos and I hope we never have to go through anything of this caliber ever again. Oh yes, and I hope the Tar Heels improve next season as well.

Now that I have shared the roller coaster that my brain rode on all season long, what were your expectations this season? Did the Heels underachieve, overachieve, or meet what you were thinking? Let us know in the comments below. Also, do share any thoughts that you may have about the returning cast for next season as well.

Stay safe, be kind to one another, and Go Heels!