There is no shortage of explanations as to why and how things went wrong, from the late ten point blown lead at College of Charleston all the way to Tyler Zeller's blocked layup attempt against Georgia Tech Thursday night. Injuries — games missed by key players, key players playing hurt and below their normal standards. Lack of consistent outside shooting. Poor boxing out on the defensive end. Mind-boggling turnovers. Erratic free throw shooting. More injuries. Inconsistent intensity. Missed layups.
Coaching mistakes, in retrospect, appear part of the picture too. John Henson really didn't need to spend half the season doing a poor imitation of a three-man. And this team likely would have been better off if it had been oriented from the start towards a more deliberate, ball control style emphasizing turnover reduction and getting the ball inside — a style that might have allowed the team to win while scoring 65-70 points a game. You can't run and outscore teams if you can't put the ball in the basket, and this team was never going to be nearly as good at doing that as recent Roy Williams teams.
Add it all up and you have a season that has been as baffling as it has been disappointing. Carolina fans are conditioned to seeing Tar Heel teams battle through tight situations and come out on top, more often than not. It didn't happen this year—exhibit A being the first Georgia Tech game, when a rare Will Graves explosion gave Carolina a great chance for a home win over a quality opponent, only for the Heels to literally cough it up in the final minute. Exhibit B might consist of the road loss at Virginia Tech—a battling performance kept the Tar Heels in the game until the final minute, when a Graves three pointer went all the way down and spun back out. Exhibit C would be the most recent Georgia Tech game, in which one of the best team efforts of the season unfortunately coincided with Graves and Larry Drew not being able to hit the barn door. Drew had a late three spin out too that was eerily similar to what happened at VPI.
Suffice it to say that this has not been Carolina's year. And while seasons like this are not the kind one would like to get used to, there is value—in sanity maintenance, if nothing else—in saying ‘Look, this is just the year where it all went wrong.' One of the wisest, if counter-intuitive, statements heard all year about this team came from Eddie Fogler in a radio interview the night of the 100th anniversary alumni celebration in February: a down year is not the end of the world.
Of course, like Roy Williams's masseuse, Fogler has not been coaching this team. It's important to remember that as frustrating as it has been for fans to watch this season, the frustration the participants themselves feel is exponentially higher. "Perspective" is a luxury most easily obtained by those who are not living and breathing Carolina basketball as a participant.
That said, a little perspective on this season is in order. First, look back. A year ago Carolina won the national title in dominating fashion. The Heels were able to do so because they had immense talent that was also very experienced, and because they had two players who, in this writer's opinion, are among the best 15 or so ever to suit up for UNC. Of course, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough and likely Ty Lawson were gone at the end of the year regardless, but consider this alternative history scenario: Lawson's toe keeps him out the second half against LSU in the NCAA 2nd round, UNC goes down, and Wayne Ellington does not go on to become Final Four MVP.
Maybe in that scenario Wayne Ellington, not being a guaranteed first rounder, returns for his senior season. If that had happened, the current Carolina team, holding everything else constant, would not have been just a little bit better—it would have been a lot better, on both ends of the court. Of course fans are very glad that did not happen, both for last year's team and for Ellington himself. But thinking through that alternative scenario is a useful reminder that a) in college basketball, one player can make a huge difference and b) the higher you get up the talent chain, the more likely you are to lose players early and have roster gaps pop up.
Now, look ahead. Even with all that has gone wrong and all the obvious problems with this year's team noted above, it's not hard to come up with a scenario by which Carolina could have had 20 or 21 wins right now instead of 16. Moreover, earlier in the year—before the injuries started and confidence started unraveling—Carolina did play like a good team. With outside shooting that was even slightly more reliable, Carolina could have had a reasonably successful year.
Consequently, assessments that this team needs a radical makeover to be successful in the near future or that Roy Williams has somehow horribly botched his recruiting policy are misguided. What Carolina needs is first, better perimeter play, and second, more toughness from its inside players. There are two ways to improve in college basketball: get new players in, and have the players you already have develop and improve. The first part of that formula has already been taken care of going forward (Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock, Kendall Marshall). The second part will take place over the summer months on the practice court and in the weight room.
What this team needed most this year was better shooting and better ballhandling. Both are on the way, it's highly likely that the likes of Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and (yes) Drew will continue to develop and improve. (If they don't, they aren't likely to play much.) Of course next year's team may not be as deep inside if Davis leaves — few people are going to feel sorry for a Carolina team featuring Zeller and Henson together in the frontcourt – and next year's Heels might have a problem dealing with 6-8, 6-9 players who are both quick and strong. And Carolina will need to hope someone can step up and provide the solid overall floor play Marcus Ginyard offered when healthy throughout his career (Leslie McDonald, this means you.)
So it's not guaranteed Carolina will be significantly better next year. If this season has taught anything, it's that nothing is guaranteed, even if you do wear North Carolina uniforms and if you have a Hall-of-Famer on the sidelines. That said, there's reason to be optimistic about Carolina's chances for a rapid return to excellence, for three reasons: the new players coming in, the likelihood that current freshmen and sophomores will get better, and the fact that Roy Williams is not going to settle for anything less.
In the meantime, there still may be some basketball to be played. Deon Thompson said after the Georgia Tech game that he wants to play in the NIT, and that should be good enough reason to sway anyone feeling ambivalent about that tournament. If you don't want to watch, don't watch, but whether or not fans want to "shut it down" because they don't think watching the team play is any fun isn't a relevant criteria in deciding whether to play or not. College basketball players want to play, coaches with players they want to develop into winners want more practice time, and seniors who love Carolina Basketball want to put the uniform on as many more times as they can.
Ideally Thompson and Ginyard will be given at least one more chance to do that. It's true that in a sense, the season is already over. But having the chance to play — just play — provides an opportunity to lay some positive groundwork for next year, and maybe even wipe away some of the unpleasant taste of Carolina's annus horribilis.
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 is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.