It’s basketball. By nearly every metric you could think of, this is a pretty silly question. Objectively speaking, Mack Brown’s team won 9 games and won their division, a mark most teams in the country would be justifiably overjoyed with, while UNC Basketball only barely hit the 20-win mark that’s the bare minimum for not outright cratering (not to say they didn’t crater, just that they hit one benchmark). Against expectations, the gap only widens: Football’s preseason odds were to place 3rd or 4th in the ACC Coastal and win 7-8 games, while Hubert Davis’ squad was the preseason #1, widely believed to have the makings of another Final Four run. Football, again, won the Coastal and won 9 games, and basketball, well... didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. And if you throw in program history, forget about it: UNC’s won 9 or more games just 16 times in its football history and this season qualifies in its top-50 all-time for winning percentage (and 4th since the turn of the millennium), whereas this basketball season has a strong argument for worst all-time when you take even the tiniest bit of context into account. So there you have it. Basketball was orders of magnitude more disappointing than football, and even asking the question reeks either of not understanding UNC Football or of a basketball fan desperately trying to cope with the end of an absolute fart of a season that once felt promised.
And yet, to me at least — and I suspect I’m not alone — the question doesn’t feel as outlandish as that opening paragraph would make it seem. I have a couple of suspicions as to reasons why, and if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to try and work through them here, and maybe at the end, we’ll have a more honest answer to the question than the one indicated by pure numbers. After all, as much as we use them, numbers are only a tiny bit of what makes sports so impactful to us.
And it’s beyond obvious that the reason that an objectively good season felt and still feels like not enough is a certain quarterback by the name of Drake Maye. It took all of half a game into the new season to see that the new starting signal-caller in Chapel Hill was a talent the likes UNC had never seen, and with that information in mind, all of those preseason expectations suddenly felt woefully underinformed. They’d been made with the assumption that the Heels were losing the program’s best-ever passer (and arguably its best-ever quarterback), and it’s beyond rare that a program loses a player of that magnitude and doesn’t take a step back at the position. UNC, against all odds, managed to upgrade, and now had one of the five best quarterbacks in college football. Expecting a 7-win finish in the thick of an incredibly weak Coastal already seemed impossibly low. Four games in, Maye was getting legitimate Heisman hype, and the only quarterback to win the Heisman and not win at least 10 games in the last decade was Lamar Jackson at Louisville.
Even early on, it was clear that Maye represented a chance for the Tar Heels as a program to take a step forward into relevance on the national stage, and at the same time, it was evident, even as the Heels staggered to a 9-1 start, that the UNC defense was doing its best not to let that happen. For most of the season, Maye’s excellence covered up for the fact that this UNC team was fielding one of its worst ever defensive units, a failure nearly on par with what the basketball team would go on to do in the following months. And when Maye hit a relative wall after 10 games in his first season starting (as young players are wont to do), a defense that had been handed the opportunity to play against third- and fourth-string quarterbacks and make life easy for its quarterback instead made them all look like legitimate starters, and UNC struggled en route to season-ending losses to Georgia Tech and N.C. State before getting washed by Clemson in the ACC Championship and beaten by Oregon in their bowl game.
So yes, one of the reasons the football season felt so sour was because the expectations changed quickly based on new information, and the team’s performance went from historic to meeting expectations at best. Just as disappointing, I think, was the seeming complete lack of understanding of what went wrong with the team. The offensive coordinator, perennially one of the best at his job in the country, was run off for somebody who has never successfully called plays, because of a couple of outlier-bad performances in the red zone that came down to a depleted running backs room and an exhausted quarterback. The defensive coordinator, after leading a historically bad unit that may in fact have been the country’s worst, was coddled and defended with the bogus excuses that the defense had improved over the course of the season (by any measure other than the most basic of numbers, it hadn’t) and that it was actually the offense that had not been giving the defense opportunities to improve in practice (a laughable denial of responsibility). To summarize, a successful offense that seemed to just need some guidance and experience was instead replaced entirely, while a disastrous defense has undergone changes that appear to everybody watching like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and all this has added up to what is looking increasingly like an emperor-has-no-clothes situation where next year’s ceiling may well be matching the whelming nature of 2022. Coincide that with the upcoming season being almost certainly Drake Maye’s last, and the disappointment only compounds, because if you can’t take a step towards national relevance with Drake Maye at quarterback, it’s not hard to think it’s never going to happen. The stakes of this season and subsequent offseason, then, aren’t just of one season, but of the foreseeable future of UNC Football, and thus, the generated emotion is correspondingly more intense.
That’s not to let basketball off the hook. I am less pessimistic about Hubert Davis than I am about Mack Brown at this point in time, but that’s not a universally held opinion and there are genuine reasons to be on either (or neither!) side. Every returning starter regressed in a crucial part of their game: Caleb Love’s shooting tanked and his newfound finishing skill soon followed; R.J. Davis’ pick-and-roll playmaking became close to nonexistent; Armando Bacot, albeit often playing through injury, didn’t finish near the basket at near the clip he had in the past and his screen-setting got progressively lazier as the season went on; Leaky Black’s passing acumen disappeared. Something like this happening to one player might be a freak occurrence or be up to the player. It happening across the lineup points to something not going right at the development level. Furthermore, after starting the season creatively using his substitutes to exploit matchups, Hubert Davis, seemingly in panic mode as his team came closer and closer to missing the tournament, reverted to last year’s habits of ignoring the bench for anything but spot minutes. As exciting as last year’s run was and as easy as it is to like Davis based on his energy and the way all his players current and former react to him, it’s totally fair at this moment to wonder about the state of the basketball program with him in charge, and to think that the disappointment of this season portends more than just a bad season, even as his recruiting for the next couple of years looks pretty fantastic. The counterargument, I guess, is that UNC’s basketball program, unlike its football program, is a tremendously attractive job with unparalleled history, a consistently large and passionate fanbase, and a precedent of paying top-10 salaries in the sport — it’s fairly easy to believe that even if this era ends up not working out ever again, UNC men’s basketball will survive and contend for titles after it’s over. And heck, even if that’s to happen, at least this era gave us last year’s Coach K sendoffs.
Ultimately, I probably got angrier at the basketball season than I did at football, and that makes sense; they lost more often and, via a combination of history and preseason expectations, they weren’t supposed to be losing all that often at all. But I’m not going to lie; I haven’t despaired for the basketball program to even close to the extent that I have the football program. This season’s basketball failure was a singular colossal letdown that punished us for having high expectations. Last year’s football season, however, kind of feels like a warning to never have high expectations again. Is it more disappointing to be crushed in pursuit of the ultimate win, or to simply be told that the chase is pointless no matter what you think might make it possible? Perhaps against logic, I think my answer is the latter — I can’t imagine a sports fandom where I’m not rooting for something more. UNC Basketball’s given me plenty of reasons to do that even when it’s down. It’s past time and the perfect opportunity for Mack Brown to do the same.