UNC poised for more next season
North Carolina used the memory of an NCAA Tournament loss in San Antonio in 2008 to catapult itself to the 2009 national title.
A lot needs to happen for that scenario to repeat itself this time, but UNC coach Roy Williams was hopeful on Sunday, choosing to look back to a Final Four loss to Kansas six years ago immediately after the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State 85-83 in the Round of 32 at the AT&T Center.
“They’re hurting in that locker room. They’re really hurting,” Williams said. “I told them to use this feeling as fuel to motivate themselves to do even better.
“(In 2009) Bobby Frasor stood up and said, ‘You remember what we felt like last in 2008 when we left the locker room?’ … And I think that drove us. Bobby and those guys remembered all year long. Tyler Hansbrough came back to school in 2009 because he didn’t like that feeling. He wanted to try and win a national championship.”
Every program with North Carolina’s pedigree has similar thoughts after a season-ending loss, and UNC’s exit in the Round of 32 last season didn’t stop the Tar Heels from suffering the same fate this time. But there are reasons to think that 2015 could be different.
After two years of substantial turnover – four starters left after 2012 and three more starters wouldn’t play again after 2013 – UNC might lose just one scholarship player off this year’s team, and will add three McDonald’s All-Americans into the mix.
The veterans would include point guard Marcus Paige, who made a giant leap his sophomore year and turned into a first-team all-ACC playmaker, and junior forward James Michael McAdoo, the team’s top rebounder and second-leading scorer.
McAdoo, who has already chosen to stay in school twice instead of leaving for the NBA, sounded Sunday like he would be coming back once again, using “we” when referring to next year’s team.
“The biggest thing is just taking this emotion, but also just remembering this feeling,” McAdoo said. “When you’re in the locker room and you take a loss like that with your brothers, guys that I’m going to call brothers for the rest of my life. There is no offseason in North Carolina basketball. We’re going to remember this. Next year we won’t be in the same situation.”
The postseason performances of centers Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks also bodes well for next season. Johnson had 47 points on 22 of 29 shooting and 23 rebounds in his last three full games, while Meeks capped an inconsistent season with perhaps his best game as a Tar Heel – especially considering the stakes – when the freshman posted 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds against the Cyclones.
Starting shooting guard Leslie McDonald will graduate, but he could be replaced in the lineup by one of the two wing players ranked among ESPN’s Top 10 recruits in the Class of 2014 – 6-8 Justin Jackson from Tomball, Texas and 6-6 Theo Pinson from Greensboro.
Florida native Joel Berry, ranked 16th in the class by ESPN, will also come in to give UNC a third point guard behind Paige and Nate Britt, who started his first 16 games as a freshman. Of course, there’s no telling what next year’s roster will look like, as the Tar Heels learned this season. At this point last year, Williams thought his two top shooters, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, were coming back. Instead, Bullock went pro and became first-round draft pick, while Hairston was kicked off the team for violating NCAA rules.
The Hairston saga – a final decision on his possible return wasn’t made until mid-December – was part of what Williams called the most frustrating offseason and preseason in his career.
During the period of uncertainty, UNC beat highly-ranked opponents Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky but also lost two non-conference home games for the first time under Williams and suffered a deflating defeat at UAB.
Then came perhaps Williams’ most deflating moment – a home loss to Miami that came in the midst of UNC’s first-ever 1-4 start in the ACC.
“Right now I’m not doing a very good job with this basketball team, and that’s the hardest thing there is that I’ve ever had to say,” said Williams, who later added: “I do feel mentally probably worse than I’ve ever felt as a head coach right now.”
But there would be no repeat of the 2010 NIT season. Instead, the Tar Heels did something the program’s previous three NCAA championship teams didn’t – win 12 straight conference games.
“A lot of people wrote us off when P.J. was dismissed from the team,” Paige said. ‘They wrote us off when we were the first UNC team in history to be dead last in the conference after (five) games, but this team fought and clawed.”
As the ACC and NCAA Tournaments approached, the Tar Heels talked about wanting to be remembered for more than the 12-game ACC winning streak, which UNC hadn’t accomplished since 1987.
But the season had one final swing. UNC lost three of its final four games – the only win coming in the NCAA Round of 64 against Providence, keeping Williams’ streak of never losing an opening game in the tournament intact.
Against Iowa State, Brice Johnson’s sprained right ankle six minutes into the game may have provided one too many obstacles in a season full of them. And the frustrating final seconds in the 85-83 loss was a fitting end to a season that started with the uncertainty surrounding both Hairston and McDonald, who was suspended for the first nine games because of his own NCAA issues.
After the Cyclones scored the go-ahead basket with 1.6 seconds left, Britt took the inbounds pass and tried to call timeout near halfcourt. The game clock didn’t start on time, and as the Tar Heels discussed what play they would run, the referees determined that the game was over. UNC would never get a last shot.
McDonald was one of the options on a final play that never happened. Instead, his college career was over. But this season gave him plenty of experience dealing with adversity, and he was philosophical about the last play.
“Every team wants an opportunity,” McDonald said. “But that’s life.”