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UNC basketball and the beauty of unanswered prayers

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In the age of one-and-done, it’s better than ever to be a Tar Heel.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Boston College Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be real here for a minute. It’s just us. Sometime in the last few years, you’ve let the one-and-done thing get to you, haven’t you? Oh, sure. You’re in a bit of a state of denial, because really, it’s kind of gross to complain and worry after a near-miss in the NCAA title game.

But you know it’s true. In a quiet moment, when you’re otherwise minding your own business, some recruiting news comes across your radar, and yet again, Kentucky has signed a collection of basketball talent whose combined star rating needs to be expressed in exponents. This new group will replace an equal and opposite collection of talent that came to Lexington and left after a year (assuming all went according to plan), and will follow pretty much the same course the next season.

Next thing you know, Duke is doing its own slightly watered down version of the same thing, which is even more irritating. Perhaps it culminated with Brandon Ingram—a kid from Kinston, North Carolina, home of Stackhouse and Bullock, among others—deciding to sign up with Duke on a one-and-done plan, and it damn near did you in.

Why can’t we get these guys, you quietly ask yourself. Combine that emotion with the swath of fans who are convinced that Roy Williams does not know how to coach basketball because he does not call timeout as often as they would like. Toss in being upset by a team in a relatively meaningless December game, and you end up with one of the most comical of all fan panics: the conclusion that a man who can neither recruit nor coach has somehow won 800 games and two national championships.

No one will admit it now, but after, say, the loss to Northern Iowa last season, it was out there: maybe it would be better if Roy moved on. What he does doesn’t work anymore. We have to change or accept decline.

To be sure, this thought never crossed the mind of anyone who actually has adult responsibilities in the UNC athletic department, but it was out there in parts of the fan base, and sooner or later it will come back. There is not a figure in major college sports who has gotten less credit for more accomplishment than Roy Allen Williams. But let’s leave that argument for another day.

This is about the fact that the very frustration we’re talking about led to the 2017 Tar Heels, who are broadly perceived as one of most likable, enjoyable teams in UNC history, regardless of how the season turns out. Sure, some of that is driven by a collection of what seems to be a group of really good kids and a good blend of talents and personalities. Some of it is a reflection of the breathtaking explosiveness the team has displayed at times, and the potential it implies.

It’s much more than being a good team, though. Being good is good entertainment. It’s enough to get people tuning in. It’s enough to get respect, and to enjoy a good water cooler brag. But it’s not enough for a fan base to develop that deeper attachment—let’s just call it what it is: lovethat separates some Carolina teams from others.

If love serves as an apt description of your experience watching the 2017 Tar Heels, perhaps the biggest reason is that you feel like you know these guys. You have watched every one of them grow as individuals and as a team into something they simply were not capable of being when they first stepped on campus.

The most obvious example, of course, is Kennedy Meeks. The first thing that comes to mind is the weight loss. Meeks has lost at least 60 pounds since he became a UNC commit, which you can’t fully appreciate without before-and-after pictures. Meeks, who has taken more than his fair share of criticism from UNC fans, has done the work of getting that weight off, keeping it off, and improving his conditioning year after year.

Next time you feel like complaining about Meeks not being athletic enough for your tastes, make a mental note: before last season he ran the Carolina Mile in 6:03, which I’m almost positive is faster than whatever your best time was back in high school. Meeks has worked himself from being a player whose minutes were limited by his physical condition as a freshman into a rebounding beast whose best moments have often come in late game situations when the Tar Heels just had to have a play. He’s become the leader in the post that Joel Berry has been at the point.

You know Berry as the take-no-prisoners defender who cannot be left unguarded; the guy that provides the heart and hustle. It didn’t start that way. By his own admission, Berry spent a bit too much time his freshman year on social media, video games, and other distractions, and finished the year averaging 4.2 points per game in just over 13 minutes of playing time. One year later, he stepped up to be the guy that allowed the Tar Heels to survive an injury to Marcus Paige, well before anyone expected it, and now is firmly entrenched as the absolute last guy opposing point guards want to deal with. In nearly every meaningful metric (points, assists, steals, rebounds, FG%, 3P% included), Berry has improved season-over-season.

It goes on. Justin Jackson? When you hear Jones Angell say “Jackson on the wing for 3,” you’ve halfway counted it. The thing is that’s new. Jackson shot less than 30% from 3 point range last season (29.2%), and was barely over the 30% the year before. He started as a sometimes hesitant, wiry player whose go-to move was a floater that he sometimes struggled to get off in the lane. In 2017 he has already taken more 3 point shots than in either of his prior years (soon he will have taken more than in those two years combined), is hitting at 40%, is much stronger (if still on the lean side), has become highly effective in transition, and not coincidentally is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer.

Some version of this story plays out for every player on the UNC roster. In just a handful of games after a return from injury, Theo Pinson has somehow made an already very good team much better than it was without him. His scoring averages in his first two seasons were 2.8 and 5.5 points. Kenny Williams barely played last year and now keeps winning defensive player of the game and showing flashes of a shot that earned him a recruiting reputation as a potentially elite 3-point shooter.

Isaiah Hicks is playing at his highest level yet—personal records in rebounding, points, and minutes—but most surprising of all, he has two total personal fouls in the last two games, which you can go ahead and admit you considered less likely than hitting the Powerball. Luke Maye had 15 rebounds against Florida State, when you figured maybe he was a charity scholarship.

Let’s not pretend that the Tar Heels weren’t interested in one-and-done guys. They were. Most of the one-and-dones that Kentucky and Duke have collected—Ingram in particular—were guys that Williams would love to have had on campus. The fact that it didn’t happen, though, gave us all something that might be even better.

Watching players and teams grow up and grow together was once common in elite college basketball. It no longer is—indeed, at times it feels as if those days are past; that talent alone is what matters most. What makes the 2017 Tar Heels uncommon is the thing that connects them so tightly to the teams you remember fondly from years ago. It’s what for so long made college basketball so much better than watching the NBA, the difference in talent and execution notwithstanding.

It’s that you got to watch imperfect players struggle, grow, improve, mature, and achieve. You got to suffer with them and celebrate with them, and see first hand what building a team looks like.

When you share that experience, even vicariously, there’s only one word that fits: love. As you soak in the 2017 season and the joys that go with it, be grateful that you do not always get what you wish for.