For at least a few days, basketball was alive again in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, slumming in the National Invitation Tournament after a disastrous season, played inspired basketball during a two-game stretch that included hard-fought victories to keep their season alive. By the time you read this, we'll know if they are headed to New York's Madison Square Garden for the NIT's version of the Final Four.
A change in venue largely contributed to the change in attitude. Playing at hallowed Carmichael Arena (née Auditorium) because the Dean Smith Center was scheduled to undergo renovations—and, really, who could blame the school for not anticipating NIT games?—the Tar Heels channeled the more intimate crowd’s energy into a winning performance against William & Mary.
Carolina entered the game with an all-time 169-20 record at Carmichael, the Tar Heels' permanent home from 1965–1986 and in its heyday, a rival to Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium in terms of smallish capacity (approximately 8,000 fans) and volume, due to the building's low roof and tight student seating arrangement. Some of the greatest coaches and players in basketball history called it home, including Dean Smith, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Phil Ford and many others. Roy Williams spent most of his years as an assistant at Carmichael, and he also was head coach of the junior varsity team there.
And all that illustrious pedigree served only to underscore this year's startling underachievement. Chosen for the national top five in many preseason publications, the Tar Heels finished a woeful 5-11 in the ACC. They received several whippings in Chapel Hill and were humiliated in Durham by archrival Duke toward the end of the season.
Williams spoke continually about the club's lack of focus and desire to compete, becoming emotional on numerous occasions in postgame press conferences and during his radio show when assessing his own coaching performance. He made controversial remarks comparing the Tar Heels' season to the earthquake in Haiti, after previously drawing criticism for having a visiting fan removed from the Smith Center for what many perceived as benign heckling.
For perspective, Williams entered the year with the highest winning percentage (81.1) of any active coach in America, and a year ago he won his second national championship in the past five years. You couldn't blame him for publishing a memoir, the well-received Hard Work, at the outset of the 2009–10 campaign.
So what happened?
By the end of the season, that was the only meaningful conversation anyone could have about the team. And given that Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all left town following last season, it's tempting to blame the issues on a lack of talent and experience.
But there's one problem: This Carolina team managed to beat two of the Big Ten's best clubs—Michigan State and Ohio State—early in the season. The Heels also fought gamely on the road against an elite Kentucky squad. A hopeless team, such as the historically atrocious, Matt Doherty-led 2002 Carolina group, never could have achieved those outcomes.
Injuries also became a pervasive issue, with franchise big man Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Ginyard and David and Travis Wear all suffering knocks. Even so, didn't the Heels return enough talent to at least be competitive against middling teams such as Virginia? Couldn't they have found a way to beat the College of Charleston?
There was an evident chemistry disconnect between the seniors—one of the winningest classes in school history—and the underclassmen. Moreover, forward Deon Thompson and point guard Larry Drew were among the players to publicly question various coaching stratagems.
From a tactical standpoint, an increasing number of observers have commented that some of Williams' philosophies are outdated, particularly on the defensive end with respect to helping on opposing jump shooters. Carolina displayed a tendency to fall into routines that made their defense easy to dissect, and the Tar Heels consistently gave up wide-open three-pointers.
Any team can have a down year, but Carolina's fall from grace was shocking, given the initial prognostications. More troubling, there's no assurance that next season will mark a return to national prominence. The Heels' incoming recruiting class—highlighted by the consensus top senior, Harrison Barnes—arguably is the nation's very best, but this year's inconsistent freshmen also had been highly touted.
The only certainty is that no one in Chapel Hill wants to conduct this same discussion a year from now. If there is a positive takeaway from the months-long slump, it's the knowledge that even a spoiled, demoralized fan base will file into an aged building for a second-rate tournament and loudly demonstrate their support and loyalty to the Tar Heels' traditions.
In Durham, of course, UNC's travails were greeted with derision and savored for posterity even while the Duke Blue Devils marched toward accomplishments of their own. Mike Krzyzewski's club won a pair of games last weekend to advance to the Sweet 16, and now Duke has its sights set on earning a berth in the Final Four for the first time since the 2003–04 season.
The Devils will travel to Houston to play Purdue on Friday and, if they win, take on either Baylor or upstart St. Mary's on Sunday. If they survive those two rounds, they'll make the triumphant journey the following weekend to Indianapolis for the national semifinals and final.
Three players have done the bulk of the scoring: Senior Jon Scheyer and juniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Additionally, however, and this marks a change from previous years, the Blue Devils have received excellent offensive rebounding from their big men.
All that notwithstanding, anything short of a Final Four appearance will constitute another disappointment and add to the distance between the present and the Devils' dominant past. Still, Duke was the only Triangle team that graced the NCAA Tournament at all, so bragging rights go to the kids in royal blue, no matter what transpires the rest of the way.
And if the Blue Devils are able to capture their fourth national championship, this season's failures at UNC will be overshadowed everywhere except—and exacerbated within—Chapel Hill.