SAN ANTONIO — March is all about omens.
With the consistently-inconsistent 2014 North Carolina Tar Heels, the basketball gods have been holding their cards close to the chest. After wins against top-ten teams like Duke, Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, coupled with inexplicable losses to UAB, Miami and Belmont, the Carolina faithful now take any sign – fortunate or ill-favored — they can get.
But for those who knew where to look, Friday’s 79-77 win over Providence was pretty ominous.
There was the city of San Antonio, home to the lingering specter of the 40-12 deficit to Kansas and the bittersweet memory of Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter’s 1998 Final Four farewell.
There was Bryce Cotton, covered by 12 different CBS cameras but seemingly no Carolina defenders, dropping 36 points on the Heels in a performance that Roy Williams said echoed the past anti-UNC efforts of T.J. Warren, Jabari Parker and even circa-2008 Tyrese Rice.
There was 5th-year senior marksman Leslie McDonald, on the floor after a loose-ball collision that left him clutching the same ACL he’d torn two seasons ago.
There was the AT&T center, rising to its feet in united faction against Carolina as the Heels trailed by as much as seven late, just like the Greensboro Coliseum crowd in last week’s game against Pitt or Duke’s agent provocateurs in Carolina’s 2009 NCAA tournament matchup against LSU at the same venue.
There was James Michael McAdoo, after a season’s worth of analysts ridiculing his team’s woes from the charity stripe, watching the second of his two must-make free throws clank off the back iron in a one-point game with 3.5 seconds left on the clock.
And suddenly, there was the ball.
McAdoo’s offensive rebound off his own free throw miss allowed the Heels to waste just enough of the clock to prevent Providence from even attempting another shot. Game over.
That board ripped the media’s postgame focus on season-long complaints about free-throws, toughness and focus, and instead drew attention to the Carolina frontcourt’s renewed emphasis on offensive rebounding, just a week after giving up 21 boards to Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna. That board is the reason we aren’t sitting here performing an autopsy on the 2014 team.
Because for all the attention this game’s ill omens got, it was easy to miss the good ones.
There was “second-half Paige,” knocking down tough shot after tough shot just like he did in OT vs. Virginia Tech as a freshman and in Raleigh against NCSU as a sophomore.
There was Tokoto, spinning for a furious two-hand flush on the break a la Vince Carter.
There was Roy, shuffling his defenses between zone and man-to-man just like February’s gritty triumph over Duke, throwing in just enough curveballs like the 1-3-1, run-and-jump and inbounds trap to prevent Cotton from going completely supernova. The Carolina coach — and self-avowed golfing nut — even pulled out an old golf story in the final huddle to put McAdoo’s pending trip to the free throw line into perspective.
“I told (McAdoo), I said one time I was in a golf tournament, a guy said if you make this putt we win $55, 000,” Williams recalled. “I said two free throws, that’s easy compared to making a putt for $55,000. I didn’t lose $55,000 by missing.”
There was McAdoo, inadvertently proving his coach wrong by doing just that – missing.
And when the dust settled, there was Carolina, subdued but still jubilant in the locker room, headed to the next round.
As usual, the media thronged around Paige and McAdoo’s seats, with the mischievous Tokoto and Johnson firing wads of discarded ankle tape over the crowd of cameras and microphones into trashcans on the other side of the room. Leslie McDonald, a man who’s been at UNC through years both ill-fated — like the NIT clunker of 2010 and his injury in 2012 – and blessed — like his team’s regular season ACC championship in 2011— sat alone at his locker. McDonald said it was an accomplishment just to have reached this point in the year after the early-season turmoil both on and off the court that beset the Tar Heels.
“It’s do or die in the postseason,” McDonald said of his team’s unpredictable performances over the last few weeks. “You might have ups or downs, but here (in the tournament) you’re either going up or going home.”
So what do the basketball gods have in store for Sunday’s showdown with 3-seed and 9th-ranked Iowa State?
We could tell you that the Cyclones are a far cry from the pushover that Carolina’s 2005 squad waltzed through 92-67 on their way to Roy’s first national championship, or that they’re the only team left in the tournament with a faster rate of play statistically than UNC. We could mention they make 55 percent of their two-point shots and lead the nation in assists at 18 per game, but were dealt a blow with the loss of senior forward Georges Niang, who scored 24 points in his team’s second-round win over NC Central but fractured his foot.
But don’t pay too much attention those statistics. Fans have entered a dark age with this UNC team, which defies rational analysis and prompts a sort of pre-game mysticism that goes beyond the usual bounds of sport-related superstition.
This team might lose to Iowa State. They might run a Florida or Louisville-caliber team out of the gym in the Final Four. One thing they won’t do is give you the slightest omen of what’s ahead.
If that’s the concept of March Madness, this team’s been there all year.
Follow Jeremy on twitter @Jt_gerlach