For pretty much my entire life, rooting for the Tar Heels has come with accepting the fact that you are rooting for a team that is almost always going to be a favorite going in, and that the rest of the country hates seeing the favorite win. It’s a huge compliment to the program that Dean Smith built that as a Carolina fan, you had to accept that most people wanted you to lose.
One would have thought this would change under Roy Williams, but his almost immediate capturing of the 2005 title, along with the Hansbrough class that culminated with the 2009 title, and then the crew that was building to a 2012 title prior to Kendal Marshall’s injury basically took the sympathy away from the program. Any chance that people may have had to hop on the train dissipated after that ‘12 run thanks to the “junk,” as Roy would call it. By the time Roy left, he had already risen back up to take the title in ‘17, still had to dog questions about the NCAA, and then things started to backslide before his retirement last year.
All of this is to say that for as “easy” as people say it is to root for Carolina, you basically have accepted the fact that unless you’re playing Duke, the rest of the world would be happy to see you go down.
Then 2022 happened.
The season was trending a lot like the last couple had: sputtering to an early NCAA exit. The Tar Heels were mostly an afterthought as that school eight miles down the road was spending their time giving a retirement tour to their coach. They were so much of an afterthought that no one thought it odd to schedule pre and post game ceremonies commemorating the retirement of the coach, and hardly anyone talked about the squad that actually had to come in and play. They had a coach that folks didn’t really know, but he didn’t have the ire of outside fans like Dean and Roy.
That confluence of events built something Carolina fans weren’t used to: sympathy. National types tuned to the overblown ceremony built for K that they were actively rooting for Carolina. Part of that was the fact that no one actually felt they would win, but that just played into how absolutely gorgeous it would be if Duke actually lost this game. Then the seemingly impossible happened, and it was better than anyone could have imagined. Iconic photos and a sulking K telling fans to be quiet endeared this Tar Heels team as the one that dealt college basketball’s ultimate villain his biggest defeat.
The win had the amazing effect on Carolina fans of taking away pressure. For the fans, the Tar Heels could go into the NCAA Tournament, not win it, and they would be thrilled because they had that remarkable win. They had a favorable draw with the “weakest” number 1 seed, and a blowout of the nine seed Marquette just reinforced the idea that literally every game from that point one was gravy.
This Carolina team, though, was not done writing the story.
They survived giving up a 25 point lead to Baylor by hitting a three from the jump in Overtime. They came back to beat UCLA after trailing at half. They easily dominated the NCAA darling in St. Peters to get to the Final Four. By this point the term Iron Five had become synonymous with the guys on the court as they would all play 35 minutes a game. What had been a cool story of a team ruining a retirement party became THE story in college basketball as they were the eight seed crashing the party of other one and two seeds.
The only other time the Tar Heels had done this as an eight seed, 2000, was still too close to the Dean Smith Era and two years removed from back-to-back Final Four runs to where they really didn’t feel like an underdog. Honestly, 2022 could have ended a lot like 2000 except for one major thing:
Duke wanted revenge.
The win in Durham had seemed to wake K and the Duke players up to the fact that they had made this season about him way too much, and that it would cast an unnecessary shadow over them during the tournament when folks already wanted them to lose. All of a sudden talk of his retirement was silenced, “it was about the title,” and they wanted to write their own story where they get revenge for the humiliation they suffered. All of this built into the idea that any animosity towards Carolina for knocking out St. Peter’s was gone because once again, folks wanted Duke to go down. Once again, the college basketball world sided with the Tar Heels.
To add to all this, the guy roaming the sidelines for Carolina was someone so easy to root for. All it took was seeing him break down in tears and basically refuse to talk about himself as the team advanced to the Final Four to create such a dichotomy with the squad they were about to go face. This was a squad that actually was playing for their coach, and you could easily see why because the unquestioning belief he had had in them through the season, at least in public, was starting to pay off-but he wasn’t going to take a lick of credit for it.
Then the game happened. A game with all of the hype you could possibly put on a game lived up to every second of it, especially in the second half. On the biggest stage the Tar Heels didn’t shrink, it was more than a game about bragging rights. This squad wanted it, and America wanted them to have it. Bacot gave the iconic “F&#$ it” when he twisted his ankle, fouling out later and rallying the guys. And then...and then...
Somehow this squad had done it again, complete with another shot that will live in Carolina Lore. Somehow the storybook ending was still happening.
The storybook ending, though wasn’t meant to be, as we all know. Still, while Kansas will deservedly celebrate their title and hang a banner, one can’t help but to wonder if folks will consider Carolina the true winner of the Final Four. They gave us iconic shots, gritty play, passion, and vanquished college basketball’s most despised coach grabbing ultimate bragging rights. They also gave us a lifetime of memories in five short weeks.
They reminded us why we are lucky to be fans of this team, and how fun it is to pull for the underdog. Savor the feeling, who knows if it’ll ever happen again.