Already this year I have written at least two posts that I thought would be my last post addressing UNC basketball. Let's go ahead and admit it right away: This season has been an unmitigated disaster for a team that was ranked #4 in the ESPN Coaches Poll. The reasons have been discussed and speculated on ad nauseam but it can basically be boiled down to three things: injuries, inexperience, and lack of developed talent. UNC failed to play with any consistency during ACC season and suffered several beatdowns at the hands of ACC opponents, the magnus opum of which was the final game of the season at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Being the optimist that I am I still hoped they could put together an ACC tournament run and had almost convinced myself they could do so when they held a 10 point lead going into halftime against Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC tournament. About an hour later UNC was one and done in the ACC tournament and I was finally ready to put UNC's season to rest.
When I found out UNC had gotten a debatably undeserved bid to the NIT tournament, I was not particularly excited until I found out they would be playing the first round game in Carmichael due to
When I arrived at Carmichael at 8:30 last Tuesday night I was not disappointed. I had only been in the stadium once during my freshman year before renovations, and had never actually watched a game there. The arena was jam packed by tipoff and due to the smaller size, every seat in the house was a good seat (trust me I had about the worst seats you could get). As much as I loved the atmosphere, I still was only cautiously optimistic about UNC, hoping that I wasn't putting in jeopardy the fact that the last home game I attended as a student was a win (Miami was the last before then).
Then the game got going and I was instantly swept up into Carolina Basketball in a way I had not been since before ACC play. The atmosphere was more electric than any game I had been to all season with the possible exceptions of Michigan State and Duke. William and Mary proved to be a significant challenge (after all they had beaten Maryland and Wake Forest on the road during the season), tossing up a redonkulous 43 three pointers and connecting on 16 of them. However, UNC looked more composed and hustled harder than I had seen in at least two months. Leaving Carmichael Auditorium that night I could not think of a better last home game to watch as a student at UNC.
I hoped UNC would be able to build on the momentum from their win on Saturday but I realized they were playing a Mississippi State team that had a legitimate NBA draft pick in Jarvis Varnado and a backcourt that could shoot very well from distance. Furthermore, the team had struggled on the road all season and didn't have the adrenaline boost of playing in Carmichael. Once MSU came out draining threes to take a double digit lead in the first several minutes, I decided to go outside and start grilling as felt like I had watched this show at least a dozen times this season. UNC was letting the opponent go on a big run and would not be able to recover due to a lack of scoring. Several minutes later I walked back in and the game was neck-and-neck, with UNC actually taking a lead into halftime. Once again I was cautiously optimistic but not the least bit comfortable with a halftime lead after watching a 10 point lead against GT disappear in a matter of minutes. The game stayed close all the way to the end and before I knew it UNC had the ball with 8 seconds left. Larry Drew II, who has come under as much criticism of any player on the team, aggressively drove to the basket and dropped in a left handed layup over the nation's leading shot blocker to ice the game.
Sunday morning, following a great slate of NCAA tournament games including UNI's earth shaking upset of Kansas, I am watching sportscenter and suddenly I see the highlights of the UNC-MSU game being played. It basically just summed up what I was thinking about UNC after their win: For the first time in a long time this season, UNC is fun to watch again.
UNC plays its third NIT game tonight in Birmingham against UAB. The Tar Heels haven't won three games in a row since December. They will again be playing in hostile territory in front of a sold out crowd. UAB absolutely decimated NC State, forcing them into 35.8% shooting from the field and 13 turnovers. The Tar Heels, will have to keep their offensive woes that plagued them in the ACC season behind them if they want to win. However, UAB is not nearly the three point threat that William and Mary or Mississippi State were and also have a smallish frontcourt that UNC could take advantage of, especially if Zeller is in the lineup.
If UNC does pull off a win they will be headed to Madison Square Garden for the final four of the NIT. The final four is kind of a dubious honor, and on more than one occasion I have called the tournament the Not Invited Tournament. Even if UNC cuts down the nets in New York (do they cut down the nets for the NIT), it won't change that this was a disappointing season and it won't mean that they should have been in the NCAA tournament. What it will mean is that the season can end on a positive note, and hopefully restore some of the damaged confidence of the current freshmen and sophomores who will be looked at to lead this team next year in pursuit of a minor "return to glory." For me though it will mean that I got to legitimately enjoy the end of my final basketball season as a UNC student. And the possibility of that is why UNC has once again pulled me back in.
*Yes I realize the original quote from Godfather III was "Just when I thought I was out..." but I took the George Costanza version instead. Why? Because George Costanza rules, and the Godfather part III kind of sucked.