Carolina basketball has been called a lot of things over the last 100 years: blue blood, historic, legendary, and elite are just some of those examples. Sure, it sounds like just another Tar Heel fan talking about how their program is better than anybody else’s, but it can’t be ignored that the Heels have the third-most NCAA titles in history, and the most Final Four trips ever. Because of all of their incredible success over the years, there’s one term that most of us have never seen associated with the program: Cinderella team.
Here’s how spoiled we’ve been as UNC fans: I had to look up what the strict definition of a “Cinderella team” was, and while it’s possible that someone else has a different definition, here is what sports writer Sanjesh Singh with NBC Sports Chicago had to say:
A Cinderella team in NCAA basketball is usually a No. 8 seed or below, but sometimes there are exceptions. These teams don’t receive the Cinderella badge overnight; it’s earned after multiple wins against higher-seeded teams.
They go on a run no one expected relative to their expectations and leave as one of the tournament’s best stories, regardless if they are champions.
Based on that definition alone, one could argue that Carolina could be considered a Cinderella team. No. 8 seed? Check. Win over a higher seed? Check. Go on a run that many people didn’t expect? Check check check. I’ll even be honest: I did predict that this team’s ceiling was making it to the Sweet Sixteen before the season started, but I started to lose hope. However, this team has shown a level of determination that caught everybody off guard, and that is why we are where we are today.
After UNC’s first loss of the season to a very good Purdue team (who also made it to the Sweet Sixteen), the Heels followed up the game with an even worse game against Tennessee. The box score doesn’t tell the full story, but the overall summary is that the Volunteers just looked way tougher than the Heels. So much tougher, in fact, that Heels fans were extremely angry following the game. Like, really angry. The team made up for it by winning the next five games, including a good win against #24 Michigan, but then they were embarrassed by #21 Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. They would go on to have a few more cringe losses to really good teams, but where it all fell apart was the game against Pitt.
Here’s the thing: the Heels had absolutely no business losing to Pitt, and I think the biggest problem with the loss is how late it was into the season. People were still mad about the 20-point loss to Duke, they were constantly getting ran over by really talented teams, and Carolina basketball history dictates that you win against at least a couple of really good teams to secure your spot in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, they laid an egg against a team that finished the season 11-21, and in doing so a lot of people counted them out of the tournament. Some pundits were willing to keep them on the bubble, but overall it was decided that the only way the Heels were going to make it into this tournament was by taking down Duke in Coach K’s final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It sounded stupid, it sounded like a pointless thing to wish for, and in short: it sounded like the Heels weren’t going to make the tournament.
Needless to say, things worked out pretty well. I can still hear Duke fans crying.
With their biggest win of the season under their belt, suddenly UNC was comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, and were rewarded with the eighth seed in the East region. They kicked things off with a dominant win over 9-seed Marquette, and looked like they would’ve done the same thing to Baylor…until Brady Manek got ejected and Caleb Love fouled out. The Heels were backed into a corner, their large lead shrank, and they ended up in overtime with a #1 seed. There was nothing about the situation that suggested that the Heels would pull off a miracle win and move on to the Sweet Sixteen, but Dontrez Styles and Justin McKoy saved the day despite playing limited minutes throughout the season. The Heels are now on their way to Philadelphia in Hubert Davis’ first season as a head coach, and with Baylor and Kentucky eliminated from the tournament, suddenly the Final Four isn’t a super unrealistic possibility. It would still be an extremely difficult feat to pull off, but really, how could the situation be any better?
There’s something about this 2021-22 Carolina basketball team that is such an amazing feel-good story, especially when you factor in how Roy Williams’ final two seasons played out. These guys have been through so much on and off the court, and for them to make it this far in the tournament is truly incredible. Hubert Davis has done a spectacular job of getting the Tar Heels ready for March just like Coach Williams would have, and now we can finally answer the question: he was the right man for the job. I am not open to debate, because sometimes life is about moments, and in this moment he was the absolute best candidate to coach this team. It could change next season, or it could change several seasons from now, but right now Davis is the coach that this team needs.
So then, do I think the Tar Heels are a Cinderella team? Despite the definition above, I don’t think the label is accurate for a program with such an incredible history, and would actually argue that Saint Peter’s is much more deserving of that title. However, sometimes a basketball team doesn’t need to be a fairy tale story. Sometimes they just need to be really great story about adversity, never giving up, proving everybody wrong, and accomplishing what you want to accomplish. That is enough to fill my heart, and for me to cheer as loudly as I possibly can when UNC takes on UCLA this Friday. Win or lose, we will not forget this story for a very long time.