It was typical of this team's competitiveness that the Heels refused to let a horrid start to the second half deteriorate into a blowout, and that after being down nine with under three minutes to play Carolina actually had a chance to tie the game on the final possession. Appropriately, the ball went to Rashad McCants, but credit Texas for smothering McCants and also taking away any possible passing angle to the open Jawad Williams. As on several other occasions this year, Carolina simply failed to get a quality shot on the last play of the game with the opportunity to tie or win the contest.
But as frustrating as this season's last-second failures have been, those lapses of execution were symptom rather than cause of Carolina's 11 losses. Teams that consistently make plays in last minute situations are disciplined teams that have fundamentally good habits on both sides of the ball--and while these Tar Heels made enormous strides over the course of the season, their continued mistakes made the sight of Roy Williams looking downward or raising his hands to his head a familiar one in 2004.
Indeed, the remedy to this team's bad case of close game blues is not wishing that somehow next year Rashad McCants makes more three-pointers with a hand in his face than he did this year. Rather it lies in, first, expanded personnel, and second, another year of learning good habits under Williams and his staff combined with continued maturation by these players as individuals.
The expanded personnel part of the remedy is easy to grasp, and no doubt will be the primary talking point of most fans and journalists in the long 8 months ahead. The expected arrival of Marvin Williams and J.R. Smith will represent a major enhancement to the core of this team, and Quentin Thomas and Wes Miller will provide much needed depth in the backcourt. Even if only Williams is a major contributor next year, adding players of this caliber will make for much more competitive practices and will help neutralize the depth disadvantage Carolina so often faced this year.
But that added versatility and depth will be for naught unless the core group of players not only returns (as they all should) but demonstrates continued marked improvement in the basics of the game--passing, defensive positioning, boxing out. Now that Williams has had his players for a season, he will be much better situated to give the players detailed instructions for offseason work than a year ago, and the players in turn will have a much better of idea of what is wanted and expected from their coach. Already this season we saw dramatic improvements from Rashad McCants and Jackie Manuel: if the team as a whole can translate the disappointment of this season to serious commitment toward off-season improvement and gaining the extra edge, perhaps one or two more returning players will make similar leaps next season.
If both parts of this improvement recipe come to pass, there is a real possibility that Carolina will turn into a team that can not only rack up a 10-15 point lead more often than not, but can go on to turn such leads into comfortable wins, and that this group of players will finally realize their potential and become a truly great team.
No doubt about it, North Carolina finishes this 2004 season with unfinished business. A season in which everyone wanted to believe that the sky was the limit ended up being a season of transition, with exquisite basketball and a number of outstanding wins coupled with frustration after frustration.
But those frustrations should not be allowed to cloud the enormous progress this program has made in the past year. No doubt some sportswriters, out of either spite or ignorance, will try to use this group of players' undoubted shortcomings on the court as grounds for character attacks (either individually or collectively) in the wake of this loss, and others will take pleasure in seeing Roy Williams and/or North Carolina take it on the chin.
It's of little use at this point to try to argue with such folks, other than offer the gentle observation that anyone who thinks the Carolina program is not already well on the way back to the top--so soon after hitting rock bottom both on and off the court--is profoundly mistaken. Carolina's players have made it abundantly clear all year along their respect for this coaching staff and appreciation for the new environment they have brought to the Smith Center, and by the end of the season that respect was starting to evolve into bonds of genuine trust. Disappointing as it is, it's a healthy sign when the end of the season is greeted with genuine sadness in the locker room rather than a sense of relief.
But a stable program with a quality coaching staff, a quality core of players, and quality relationships between staff and players is but a precondition of competitiveness in the ACC and nationally, not a guarantee of high-level success. The fundamentals are now in place for this program to re-establish itself as a serious contender for conference and national honors year-in and year-out--but that will only come to fruition when the players wearing the North Carolina uniform once again master the fundamentals of the game of basketball.
That's the reality facing the young men who wore the uniform Saturday in Denver, tried their hardest, but were ultimately undone by their own limitations. It would have been a lot better for this team's learning process (and a lot more fun) for Carolina to have earned the right to play in another NCAA game or two. As it is, the returning players have no choice but to turn this final heartbreaking loss into both a learning experience and motivation for the long, critical offseason ahead.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.