Do you remember March 24, 2019?
It seems like a generation ago, even a different century. How long ago was it? Coby White, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, and Cam Johnson were all on that team.
On that day Carolina throttled nine seed Washington 81-59, rebounding from an OK effort against sixteen seed Iona to go strong into the Sweet 16 and try to send Luke Maye out as a two-time NCAA Champion. It was believable that the Tar Heels could do it, as Little had shaken off some inconsistency and had a monster game, co-leading that team with points. The whole season was a blast, for me personally and for a lot of fans.
It was also the last time that we as fans had as much fun during a whole season that we’ve had until now.
It’s funny because in the moment, no one really knew what sort of roller coaster was in store for Carolina basketball. Even the next weekend saw the end of the good vibes as a flu swept through the UNC locker room, Auburn shot lights out against the Tar Heels, and their season ended with a thud. All of those players we enjoyed as fans left to go pro — three were drafted, and one has been playing in various leagues around the world. We knew there would be some sort of reset going into 2019 but there was a base there in Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson, and later on that spring Cole Anthony would announce he was coming to Chapel Hill for the 2019-20 season, joining a young man by the name of Armando Bacot.
We just didn’t know what we were about to be in for.
Think about how you felt during that ‘18-’19 season. The fun OT win against Miami, stealing the spotlight in Cameron, watching Coby White turn from a fun freshman into a sure-fire NBA prospect and the joy he exuded on the court when he made a great play — all of that was on full display that season. They swept Duke in the regular season and played an epic ACC Tournament game against them, barely losing. You weren’t just thinking they had a great shot at another title, the team was just genuinely fun to watch. The offense moved, players were confident behind the arc, and they all seemed to enjoy playing with and for each other.
This wasn’t a unique team, mind you. The team that followed up the title winning team of ‘17 had a ton of great moments only to be surprised early in the Tournament, but the pressure of the title being off of them created a fun watch. We don’t need to talk about the ‘17 team, and the ‘16 team was just chugging along until the title game. That ‘19 team, though —they stick out because when you sit back and think over the last few seasons, you as a fan would be forgiven if you had forgotten what it was like to truly enjoy a team over the course of a season.
The ’20 season went downhill in a hurry, and mostly because Cole Anthony suffered an unfortunate injury at the wrong time — right when the team would do most of its development in December and January. They sunk fast, lost their home streak to Clemson, and when Anthony came back it was clear the chemistry just wasn’t there. Then COVID and the NCAA Tournament cancellation sparing us the sight of them missing that tournament. ‘21 was just a slog with empty arenas and inconsistent play. They had fun moments — sweeping Duke was great — but with the schedule always in flux and the weird feeling of watching games in empty arenas, plus the quick NCAA Tournament exit, you really watched more because you felt like you had to.
Then Roy Williams decided to retire because of the way things broke that year, and ’22 was another slog for four out of the five months. The team had a short bench, would consistently get blown out, and was on the tournament bubble again. The final month starting with the Duke win at Cameron saved the perception of the season, and arguably created the best non-title winning month in UNC basketball ever, but to say the whole season was fun? If you’re saying it was, you’re lying to yourself.
We really don’t need to relive last season, in fact I’ve made the point that it’s time to stop comparing this team to last year’s. So now, we are here, in December of 2023 going into 2024 and the feeling is one we haven’t had in five years at this point: enjoyment.
The product on the floor is good. There are areas to improve, they probably aren’t title contenders as they currently play, they are relying on first year players to be key contributors, but every game so far has been one where you enjoyed watching the squad on the floor. They take getting punched and will punch back. They play unselfishly and the ball doesn’t stick in one place. Players are celebrating passes and their teammates making plays. They have responded after a loss in resounding fashion.
Has it really been that long since we’ve been able to watch a squad of players wearing “North Carolina” provide a product that is this consistently entertaining? Yet here we are, and it’s been nothing but a real treat to watch this squad. When the season tipped off, I lived in fear of this stretch of games they are in, worrying that they would go below .500 and once again have to fight and claw to try and get into the NCAA Tournament.
Now? I’m looking forward to these next two games against Kentucky and Oklahoma. They may stumble for multiple reasons, but even if they do they haven’t dug themselves into a hole that is impossible to get out of. They’ve shown there are reasons to think they’ll do well in the next few months, and they are capable of recreating the fun of the teams that we had before entering this past five-season stretch.
In short it’s nice enjoying watching this team again. Here’s hoping they don’t make me regret saying that.