This team was preseason number one. It’s wild to look back now at the hype in the offseason and the preseason rankings that had the Tar Heels among the favorites to win the national title. After the push to the title game last March, and with four of the Iron Five returning, it certainly seemed warranted. There was optimism, sure, but there were also expectations, and those feel a little different.
For last year’s team, there were no expectations. It was Coach Davis’ first year in charge after the surprise step away from a Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams. There was a team of good ball players, but at no point in the regular season was that team expected to challenge for a national title. There was talk of the Heels missing the tournament altogether. There was always hope, because as sports fans we always have hope if we have nothing else, but no one expected the team from Chapel Hill to catch fire. Nobody could have called that team ending Coach K’s career in such fashion, especially in a third game tiebreak. It was unexpected; that’s what made it so lovely, and that may be what made it possible.
Hope is weightless; it’s something that is freely given from a fanbase without any true guarantee that it will be rewarded. Emily Dickinson wrote that it’s “the thing with feathers,” the little bird that sings unabashed within us and never asks anything in return. To hope is easy, and to be rewarded is sweet. Our collective hope was rewarded by that magical run to end the season last year.
Expectations sit a little bit differently. There’s pressure there; if hope is the thing with feathers, expectations have pockets full of bricks. It’s a different motivator, something we all feel to different extents in our day-to-day lives. My boss expects me to do my job every day; I hope to be rewarded with a raise. There are consequences on one side of that equation, and the pressure only flows one way.
A preseason number one team is expected to handle business. That team is expected to avoid dropping the first game of conference play to an imminently beatable Virginia Tech squad. You don’t hope that that team avoids a four-game skid leading into conference play; you expect it. These expectations sting when they’re not met, which can paint a season in a poor light or leave a bad taste in the mouths of the Tar Heel faithful.
You also don’t expect an unranked team to play a top-15 team close on the road. You certainly wouldn’t expect a team missing two starters to be able to keep up with the well-practiced submission hold specialists from Charlottesville. You’d hope so, but you wouldn’t be expecting it. You also wouldn’t expect a freshman like Jalen Washington to show up in such a big way, tying for second in scoring on the night with Caleb Love—but he did.
We’ve learned this season that to expect nearly anything is a sucker’s bet, and what we really have left is the hope that Armando Bacot’s ankle heals quickly, that Washington continues to play well with extended minutes, and that the team will peak at the right time as they did last year.
Hope springs eternal, but expectations will break your heart.