One of the most difficult aspects of being a sports fan is growing accustomed to change. Professional athletes frequently switch teams as opportunities for more money, better nightlife, and nicer weather present themselves; rare is the player that remains in one city for his/her entire career. As player movement during free agency has increased, it’s become more problematic for fans to invest in the relatively one-sided relationships that they form with players.

College sports are unique because a student or an alumnus can form a bond with players and teams without such concerns. With the exception of transfers, college players can’t change teams. They are forever a part of the university that they attend. Because the college experience is so special for most students, many identify strongly with their alma maters, even in adulthood. Some of the best memories that students have relate to sports, and it’s consequently natural for alumni to feel so powerfully about their schools’ sports teams.

Being a UNC fan is no exception. Carolina is a place with tremendous school spirit and a rich tradition of athletic successes, particularly on the basketball court. It is no wonder, then, that fans cheer loudly during timeout videos in which former stars introduce themselves and then declare “I’m a Tar Heel.” The history and the sense of community associated with UNC basketball are nearly unmatched, and students of the last two years have been fortunate in watching a team featuring four first round picks in the most recent NBA Draft. Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller will always be a part of us. They are Tar Heels.

The problem with making those eternal bonds is that while certain players may live forever as Tar Heels in our hearts, they can’t play for UNC anymore. The recent departure of the aforementioned draft picks has meant that a number of relatively inexperienced players are now receiving a lot of playing time. Watching freshman benchwarmers mature into upperclassmen superstars, parallel to one’s own personal development during college, can deepen the connection that binds students to athletes; just look at Tyler Zeller, who went from injury-prone role player to fan favorite, ACC Player of the Year during his career.

Unfortunately, that development process can also be frustrating, especially if a whole bunch of guys are going through it together. This seems to be the present state of affairs, with underclassmen Marcus Paige, Joel James, Brice Johnson, and Desmond Hubert attempting to adjust to the speed and intensity of the college-level game. At a place like Carolina, where expectations are always high, many students and fans are quick to criticize the team when things are not going perfectly. This year is no exception. It’s easy to get upset when ESPN flashes the “Guys Who Left A Gaping Hole in Carolina’s Team” graphic, showing the four players that left last year. This is a new season, though.

UNC has shown us both sides of the coin as we’re set to begin conference play. Beating a good UNLV team in December with Reggie Bullock sidelined by a concussion, the Heels demonstrated that they are capable of playing with any team on any given day. Unfortunately, this squad is also remarkably inconsistent. In losses to Butler, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, UNC has struggled with sloppy turnovers, poor shooting, bad perimeter defense, poor communication, and a seeming lack of effort at various points.

For fans accustomed to dominating at the highest level, the growing pains have been unsurprisingly difficult to cope with. It’s not easy to be patient when NC State is better than they’ve been in years and when Duke is the top-ranked team in the country, but only time will tell how good this team truly is. For now, the perspective I hope students will adopt is this: Sometimes you need to struggle in order to achieve success.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewdarvin

(image by Todd Melet)