Playing back-to-back NCAA Tournament caliber teams on a neutral court, in a passionate and pressurized environment, is a good test in itself. But Carolina faced an especially difficult test trying to defeat N.C. State and Florida State without John Henson. Henson's absence (in this writer's mind) made Carolina only a slight favorite against the Wolfpack, and (due to the size and athleticism and FSU's front line), a slight underdog against the Seminoles.
The games played out that way, each coming down to the final minute. One day Kendall Marshall was the hero for his clutch (no it wasn't a charge) drive and bank shot to win the game against State. The next day, Marshall again took the key shot that might have won the tournament. This time the law of averages caught up with Marshall and the Heels, and the shot didn't drop. That's basketball.
That blithe description only tells part of the weekend's story. Several unheralded Tar Heels stepped to the foreground to make crucial contributions, and the team as a whole showed a laudable competitive spirit.
Consider Sunday's game. For the first 17 minutes of the contest, it looked almost like the third half of the blowout loss in January in Tallahassee. Carolina was fulfilling the imperative of not getting into foul trouble by not playing tough defense either, and the Seminoles got on an impressive roll of three-point shooting. Down 16, Carolina rallied behind Harrison Barnes to get back into the game by halftime.
In the second half, the Tar Heels continued to have problems stopping FSU, but otherwise battled valiantly, with the welcome return of an old friend: the real P. J. Hairston, last seen sometime in December. The talented freshman picked a good time to burst out of his long slump and remind the world what he is capable of doing, scoring 13 second-half points to give Carolina a chance after falling behind 62-48. He failed to sink the long shot at the buzzer for the tie, but having a confident and proficient Hairston entering NCAA Tournament play would almost be like suddenly finding a new player. His outburst wasn't enough to win the game, but it played a big role in giving Carolina a chance and assuring the Heels didn't slump to another double-digit defeat against the ‘Noles.
Other reserves playing important roles this weekend were James Michael McAdoo, excellent against Maryland and solid against N.C. State, and power forward/point guard Justin Watts, who made several critical plays in the State game.
Realistically, winning the tournament without Henson was always an extremely difficult proposition. One can take comfort in the fact that Carolina didn't collapse Sunday but instead pushed until the end and gave itself a chance to steal a win. One can also take comfort in the fact that before Henson injured his hand in Friday's game against Maryland, the team as a whole showed a high level of focus and determination from the opening tip.
The most important consolation, of course, is that there is more basketball to be played and that Henson is expected to be back. One would not expect either Lamar or Vermont to provide a major challenge Friday in Greensboro, but coming off a loss and Henson's probable return should help sharpen Carolina's resolve and assure that game is never in doubt.
From Sunday onward, however, it's game on. The Midwest bracket has several of college basketball's biggest and most respected names: Michigan, Temple, Georgetown, Kansas. These are not teams that are going to be cowed by Carolina's name or even by the impressive assemblage of talent on this Tar Heel team. To make it out of this region is going to require a high level of focus and mental toughness—as well as a full complement of players.
Almost certainly, it will require winning at least one game in a final possession scenario—one reason it was a very good thing for Carolina to have two back-to-back tight games in Atlanta (especially after a season with few such close encounters). It may also require coming back from a double-digit deficit against a good team at some point: the idea that Carolina could, for instance, fall behind 10 or even 15 against Kansas in a regional final in St. Louis does not seem at all far-fetched. It'd be better not to be in that situation, of course, but after Sunday this team knows that it is capable of that kind of comeback, even against excellent opposition.
The 2012 Tar Heels may be the most underrated and underappreciated 29-5, No. 1 seed team in UNC history. The first Florida State loss stained the team's reputation, and the Duke loss damaged the psyche of fans and perhaps also players. Revenge for the Duke loss has been amply taken, and getting a ‘W' Sunday over FSU might also have provided closure on that trauma, especially given the difficult circumstances.
It didn't happen, and the Tar Heels won't be quite as pleased with themselves Monday morning as if it had. It's always fun to be the team jumping up and down at the end, no matter what is at stake.
But enough good things happened over the weekend to give Carolina reason to enter the tournament with a positive frame of mind, and with the belief and conviction that with a full deck of cards and maximum effort and focus, Carolina could be the team jumping up and down in St. Louis in a couple of weeks' time.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.