Yes, if you’re a Tar Heel, it’s a little bittersweet. Sure, UNC advanced to the Sweet 16 again, and there was, of course, a delectable dessert in the form of South Carolina winning its first NCAA Tournament game since the Nixon administration over Duke. Instead of participating in this weekend’s festivities, the Blue Devils are now focused on figuring out which of their legendary recruits will not be returning for next season.
But it happened again. The Tar Heels saw a 17 point lead and a blowout in the making evaporate before halftime, and then watched the lead slip away altogether against an Arkansas team which—credit where it’s due for how they played and all that—should not have been able to put that kind of scare into what most think of as a national championship contender. If this caused you to flash back to the Georgia Tech game, or Virginia II, or the ACC Tournament final (where the loss of a significant lead in a game that looked like it could be a blowout also played a big role), no one can blame you.
So what does this say? Are the 2017 Tar Heels not the team we thought? Were the episodes of brilliance the exception rather than the rule? What happens when you know that the same team that struggled with an 8 seed won’t see another team lower than a 4 the rest of the way? The ACC has lost all of its other teams. What if it’s all been a mirage?
A couple of things about that. “Survive and advance” became a cliché for a reason. Villanova struggled with an 8 seed too, only they didn’t make it to the next weekend. My guess is that you don’t think that means Villanova’s season was a fluke, or even that they would likely have the same kind of game if they played Wisconsin again the next day. Also in this category, on the off chance you have not heard and I did not mention it: Duke. Remember when Duke had “finally put it all together,” and had become “the Duke we had been expecting all along?”
The point is this: don’t let a game, or even a couple of games, fool you. Coaches are fond of saying that you’re rarely as good as you thought after a win, or as bad as you thought after a loss. And recent UNC basketball history backs this up.
You remember the 2009 national title team as the one that manhandled Michigan State in the national championship game. What you may not remember is the second round game the Tar Heels played that season against LSU. If you just scan the score sheet, you see an 84-70 win . . . no big deal, right? Wrong.
That game was an escape very reminiscent of the Arkansas win. After building a comfortable 9-point halftime lead, the Tar Heels watched the Tigers erase that margin and then some, following Marcus Thornton’s 25 points to a 54-49 LSU lead with a little over 12 minutes to play. UNC pushed back to tie the game at about the 8 minute mark, but the feeling was very much one of an impending disaster. And then? Well, then the Tar Heels ran off 11 unanswered points to complete the comeback and seal the win. Does this sound vaguely familiar?
It's not the only example. The 2005 title team’s version of this game was Villanova in the Sweet 16. There’s nothing hiding in the final score for this one: 67-66 Tar Heels. The game was every bit that scary, with the Wildcats jumping all over UNC in the early goings, building a 30-19 lead—this in a season in which the Tar Heels had never trailed by more than 4 points. North Carolina rallied to take a second half lead, but if not for an Allan Ray travel in the last minute of the game (and Villanova fans will point out that Ray made a basket on that play and was arguably fouled), their title season would have been lost to a team that was not only weaker, but was missing a starter (Curtis Sumpter) who had torn his ACL in the second round.
Of course, similar things have happened in non-title seasons, too. The memory of a near-loss in the first round to Harvard (Harvard, people) in 2015 comes easily to mind; in 2011, there was a second-round squeaker against Washington. Surviving is an element of NCAA Tournament play, and years in which even the champion wins all of its games with ease are a rarity. The point is just to survive your weaker moments so that you have an opportunity to show your better ones. What you want is an Arkansas or an LSU game, and not oh, say, a Mercer situation.
All of which is to say that as we head into Sweet Sixteen weekend, don’t be spooked by the round of 32. Yes, this Tar Heels team has some frustrating tendencies (would anyone be opposed to building on a big first half lead instead of squandering it?), but it is still the team that you’ve watched all season—the team whose best can contend with anyone’s, and then some.