Promise Unmet: Heels fall to Kansas in Elite Eight

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Will any of these guys return to UNC next season?
CBS — North Carolina fell to Kansas 80-67 in this evening’s national quarterfinal, but only the most irrational fan would hurl invective at the team. The preseason championship favorite fell in the round of eight for the second consecutive year, but bad luck delivered a fatal blow that ultimately will become this squad’s story.

Kendall Marshall was unable to play for the second straight game after fracturing his wrist versus Creighton last weekend, and his absence doomed UNC’s offense during the second half versus the Jayhawks.

Considering that backup point guard Dexter Strickland’s season ended in January after he tore his ACL, and that John Henson labored through a wrist sprain since the ACC Tournament and an ankle injury suffered early against Kansas, the Heels performed to reasonable expectation.

Harrison Barnes simply couldn’t achieve the level he did in last season’s tournament. He shot 5-for-14 to finish with 13 points. He missed all five three-point attempts, and the team as a whole made just 2-for-17 behind the arc. My very first column this season focused on Carolina’s suspect jump shooting and whether the Heels could improve their fortunes for the 2011-12 campaign, and they never proved able to stroke the ball consistently.

But while poor shooting regularly hampered these Heels, rebounding became a supreme strength. That’s why KU’s 40-30 edge on the glass surprised so many onlookers, though Henson’s numbed left wrist — he took a shot and applied cream for pain prior to the game — definitely contributed to the problem here, as he played only 25 minutes and hauled down just four rebounds (he averaged more than 10 per game).

Nearly as shocking is that Kansas doubled the Tar Heels in free throw attempts: 24-12. All-American big man Thomas Robinson scored 18 points and, along with center Jeff Withey, combined to shoot 11 free throws. Kansas was the stronger, more physical team, and the Jayhawks opted for a triangle-and-two defense — in effect, focusing on Zeller and daring UNC’s perimeter players to shoot — so KU always had a numbers advantage on the defensive glass.

Zeller played through his bottling up to score 12 points and add six rebounds. Stilman White, though over-matched by Tyshawn Taylor defensively, competed fiercely and acquitted himself well: He doled out seven assists and didn’t commit a single turnover in either of his NCAA Tournament starts.

Roy Williams didn’t seem as affected this time by the prospect of competing against his former team. Whatever went wrong, at least these Heels did not fall behind 40-12 as the 2008 squad did. Of course, he still maintains he’ll never schedule the Jayhawks for a home-and-home.

Moving on, everyone will hope for the best and prepare for the worst with respect to the NBA. Zeller graduates, and Barnes, Henson and Marshall all are considered likely to exit the college ranks as well. Even freshman James Michael McAdoo, who blossomed late this season, has been considered an outside candidate to make the jump. This season was Carolina’s time to make its championship push, and the Heels did compile a fantastic 32-6 record before bowing out.

This team’s legacy will follow the footprints made by the 1977 and 1984 groups. Those squads also suffered gravely due to injuries, and both also came up short in the tournament.

Click here for the UNC/Kansas box score.

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