As Puff Johnson spoke, his bag was visible in the locker behind him, an orange tag that said “Team Bus”, with last year’s Final Four logo still attached. A reminder of where this North Carolina team came from, and the expectations both placed on it and brought upon itself, were never too far off, right up until the very bitter end.
What was once a source of pride—the athletic department even cast a photo with Dean Smith to recreate the famous 1982 Sports Illustrated cover—became a burden the group proved strangely unsuited to carry. Nothing ever came as smoothly as it should, and certainly not on Thursday, as the reality of unfulfilled promise dawned on them.
“We certainly had high hopes coming into the year and it’s sad to see the result we got today,” Johnson said. “It happened this whole season. When you fall down, you just got to get back up.”
The Tar Heels came within a national title or two last year, earned a pair of historic wins over Duke and they all came back for more, losing Armando Bacot and Caleb Love and RJ Davis, Brady Manek, but a demanding Added after transfer in Pete Nance. He had talent, he had speed, he had arrogance. As it turns out, they also had luggage they weren’t prepared to carry.
On Thursday night, in a very quiet locker room inside the Greensboro Coliseum, they were finally forced to face their ultimate failure as the most disappointing team in the modern era of college basketball. Since the field did not expand to 64 teams in 1985, a preseason No. 1 had failed to make the NCAA tournament—three others, including NC State in 1975, failed to make the much smaller field—until Sunday when this team was forced to make the inevitable. Will get bad news.
Nance transferred from Northwestern to pursue the national title. The Wildcats will be in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina would not.
In the wake of the 68–59 loss to Virginia, the mood was not one of anger or sadness, but one of utter resignation. Maybe this time too there will be relief. These North Carolina players may never be able to identify why this team was so much less than the sum of its parts, but there will be no shortage of factors to consider in postmortem.
A lot of players who needed the ball in their hands is the simplest diagnosis, but there was also the question of what motivated the Tar Heels to come back to win or collect zero money, whether they felt They might just show up and win, were there too many hangers-on to drag along with the emotional weight already on their shoulders.
“I’m talking to more than 18 guys in the locker room,” said North Carolina coach Hubert Davis. “I’m talking to roughly 35 to 40 people, and yes, there is noise at times, whether it’s on the phone, family, friends, fans, agents, people working out. I think sometimes It really hurt us.
Either way, it’s not like Thursday’s loss stuck on the Tar Heels. They knew for some time what the loss would mean. Perhaps it gave him too much freedom to consider the implications, not just this night, and not just this week, but for months now.
He was never able to pick up where he left off against Kansas. Everything was a struggle. Nothing came as easily as it should have. Also on Thursday, he had to play the final 10 minutes of the game without Backot when he pulled himself from the lineup, unable to perform on the ankle he injured on Wednesday night.
As long as the Tar Heels didn’t look like the team they were last March — as every possible turn of a corner turned out to be a cul de sac instead — the more they did last March, the more it weighed on them. They knew they weren’t who they should have been, their frustration evident in both body language and actual language. At this point, accepting the NIT bid would tantamount to authoritarianism.
Leakey Black said, “We may have played well at a lot of things, but at the end of the day we didn’t make plays.” “We didn’t play together all year. It is what it is. We didn’t win the matches we needed to win. We can choose from a lot of things. Nobody is perfect.”
When Davis maintained after a late-season loss to NC State, that “I don’t think time is running out on our season,” it was hard to believe that he actually believed it. Everyone knew it was. It ended long before Thursday.
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