This wasn’t how exactly how it was supposed to go.
The preseason No. 1 Tar Heels were expected to cruise through the season, using their veteran experience to breeze by opponents with overwhelming offense and suffocating defense. Led by senior stalwart Marcus Paige, indeed, UNC was destined for greatness and a showering of accolades.
However, true to form for Carolina basketball in recent years, an up-and-down season ensued. Few exclamation points and a whole lot of question marks.
And here we are, the portion of the year where hopes and dreams are both realized and crushed.
Yes, Saturday night in Durham provided a welcome break from the frustration and disappointment. But were the rowdy celebrations in a rival’s locker room really a sign of things to come?
Only the next few weeks within the confines of brackets will tell. And brackets haven’t proven friendly to the Tar Heels of late. Final Fours and ACC Tournament titles used to be a rite of passage for UNC players. But this group hasn’t cut down any sort of nets.
One thing is for sure – nobody wants it worse for them than Roy Williams.
An emotional Senior Night in the Smith Center saw UNC’s hall of fame coach profess his love for this group of Tar Heels, who’ve waded through an ugly NCAA investigation that still lingers to this day and failed to achieve anything to the level the Carolina basketball program is accustomed to.
In fact, Coach Williams says this may be his favorite team of all time. Heavy words, especially for a man who’s done a whole heck of a lot of winning and banner hanging in this sport.
But it’s not the winning part that’s won over Roy. No, it’s the character and attitude of his players, who he’s said on numerous occasions the past couple seasons, have provided his “salvation” through these trying times for the University and basketball team.
Resilience, commitment, and sportsmanship have been on display time and again from his boys.
In essence, they’ve kept Roy in the game, bad knees and all. Paige, Johnson, James and company have provided a bright spot, a sanctuary against the storm of negativity raging around their coach.
But is the storm abating at last? Everything is left to play for – a conference tournament banner, a Final Four berth, and yes, even a national championship.
So it’s time to wipe away the tears. No time for those. Carolina still has a chance to rewrite the story, even amidst a dark chapter in Carolina history.
Will there be a happy ending? There’s a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, the Tar Heels can still flip the script.
At 49-all midway through the second half against Duke, who would have given UNC a shot? We’d seen that movie before after all. Building a sizable lead only to surrender it in crunch time.
But no, this time, UNC knocked down all eight of its final eight free throws and withstood a determined rally from a team used to stealing what they want from the Tar Heels. But not this time. Carolina wouldn’t allow it.
Despite the rivalry victory, though, the Tar Heels aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders. Problems persist.
However, what if Paige rediscovers his shooting touch? What if Johnson plays like an ACC Player of the Year down the stretch? What if Meeks toughens up inside? What if Hicks flies to the basket with relentless authority without fouling on the other end? A sight to see.
But with all the injuries, ‘toughness’ questions, shooting slumps, close losses, and scandal coverage these Tar Heel veterans have endured, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken comes to mind.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Will Frost’s final line ring true for these Tar Heels? Alas, fairy tales rarely come true.
But hey, step one is complete. An exorcism of demons in Cameron Indoor gave way to an ACC regular season title. Adversity has a way of making success taste sweeter.
And with any luck in March Madness, those Senior Night sobs may not be the last for UNC this season. Only this time – tears of joy.
Follow Matt on Twitter @mattdoakes