You can’t soften the blow of this one. It’s not the worst loss in Carolina history, and it doesn’t even really make the list when you go through some of the most painful losses in this rivalry alone, but it’s a game that likely ends UNC’s NCAA Tournament hopes, and that hurts.
It almost would have been better to have been blown out, but just like every other game this season, this Carolina team gave you hope that they could clear that hurdle. Once again, though, they wilted and couldn’t get out of their own way.
I’ve used this analogy so many times but this season was the living embodiment of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football with Lucy holding. Somehow you are convinced that this time will be different. Somehow you get roped in, but once again, that football was yanked away.
Enough with the analogies, what did we learn as Carolina heads into the ACC Tournament Wednesday night?
They are who we thought they were
The famous Dennis Green rant works on a couple of levels for this game. First, this Carolina team is who we thought they were by the end of the season: a team that always seemed to be a few shots away from taking control, yet a team that just couldn’t make any good basketball plays to take control. This is the same stuff we’ve seen from Carolina in too many games to count this year, and despite three wins in a row nothing had really changed — they just had a few stretches where they shot better in those other games. They were who we thought they were.
The thing is, though, the rant from Green wasn’t really about his team, it was about the other team. The full quote at the end was “They are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!” Duke didn’t do anything special in this game — they only shot 38% from the floor, and 31% from three. They had multiple bigs in foul trouble, just crying to be taken advantage of as the clock wound down. And Carolina let them off the hook.
The Tar Heels only shot 30% from the field, 22% from three, “led” by Caleb Love going 3-12 and shooting 0-6 from deep. Armando Bacot only had eight shot attempts, and only got to 17 points thanks to going 9-10 at the line. Once again, when they did pass to him it seemed like they were either a hair too late or just in the wrong direction. Carolina had a one-point lead and momentum, and they let Duke off the hook. Credit to Duke for taking advantage, but in both games it’s tough to argue that Duke is the better team.
But Duke absolutely played like the better team. That’s been a problem all year.
Don’t cancel your March plans
A month ago, after the loss to Wake Forest, I noted that Carolina was not an NCAA Tournament team, and while it seemed like they were starting to fight back a little bit with their three-game winning streak, they unfortunately had done too much damage to their resume before last night to allow a loss to the Blue Devils.
Carolina was in the field in some bracket projections prior to the loss, but chances are that’s going to shrink more now. The wild thing is, can you honestly look at the ACC Tournament field, and see a path for Carolina making the conference title game. They are sloted at the seven seed, and will play the winner of BC/Louisville at 7 PM Wednesday. With a win, they would go up against Virginia — a team they match up well against and likely would have swept had Bacot played in both games. Win again, and the three seed is Clemson. In other words, their best wins over the past month are in front of them in the ACC Tournament.
But really, do we expect this squad to have it together long enough to win three in a row, let alone all four to take down the ACC Tournament title? It’s reasonable to have hope, but it’s a lot more realistic to say that this loss effectively knocked Carolina out of the NCAA tournament. That leads us to...
It’s time for a reset
Next year is going to look different, and it needs to be different.
It was clear that this season was trying to replicate lightning in a bottle from a magical run last year, and you still wouldn’t trade it for the two huge wins they managed to get against Duke. From the start, though, it was clear that lightning had escaped and the worst part is that because they were always JUST at the edge, or JUST close to winning, or IF someone wasn’t hurt it would have been better, we all couldn’t fully accept that this just wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes running it back is a good thing, but the run masked some real issues that this team just couldn’t overcome over the course of a season.
Next year will be different with at least two players as Leaky Black and Pete Nance have run out of eligibility. There’s of course the question of who else will leave via the transfer portal or just head to the pros. Armando Bacot said before the game that he’s not ruling out returning for a fifth season, and both RJ Davis and Caleb Love do have the choice to come back for two more years as the COVID eligibility still applies to them.
One has to wonder if it might be better for the program to let the final pieces of the Roy Williams legacy move on so that the Hubert Davis tenure can truly begin. Until that happens it’s difficult to fully judge the job Davis has done, because a man can only say the same thing so many times before you look at the players that don’t seem to be getting over the hump.
With all that said, take in these last few games for what they are — the end of one of the oddest eras of Carolina Basketball that included a COVID season, an all time set of wins that’ll live well beyond us, and a massive disappointment based on raised expectations. The future is a huge unknown, but that future is close.