When North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper stepped out onto the floor of the Smith Center to unveil a large green road sign Wednesday evening, it was yet another reminder of the perfect end to the 2016-2017 season for the Tar Heels. That sign and others like it, reading ‘North Carolina Tar Heels, 2017 College Basketball Men’s National Champions’ would be posted around the state of North Carolina to provide a visual reminder, along with the banner in the rafters of the Smith Center, of the Heels’ impressive accomplishment.
Ask any Tar Heel fan about the 2017 basketball season and you’ll hear about UNC beating Gonzaga to win it all, or about Luke Maye sinking Kentucky, or about Justin Jackson raining threes, or maybe about Duke losing in the second round. There were plenty of happy memories to choose from a season full of them. However, there is one game that no one will bring up.
On November 30th, 2016, the Tar Heels had handily dispatched every team they faced in the Maui Invitational and were ranked as the no. 3 team in the country. Heading into a matchup with no. 13 Indiana, Carolina looked positioned to improve to a perfect 8-0. The result? Indiana thoroughly outplayed the Heels. North Carolina shot 39 percent from the floor, including hitting just 6 of 21 from the three point line, missing 9 of their 22 free throws, providing only 16 assists to 12 turnovers, and allowing five Indiana players to score in double figures. The Heels never led in the game, and they left the city of Bloomington with serious questions regarding their play, their effort, and the state of the season in general. Were the big men tough enough? Could the guards provide an outside threat? Could anyone knock down key free throws? Justin Jackson had played well, but could anyone else give him enough help? The toughness and heart of the Tar Heels were called into question, because against Indiana they had seemed overwhelmed.
Fast forward nearly a full year to November 26, this time in 2017. North Carolina, ranked ninth and coming off resounding wins against Arkansas and Stanford in the previous few days, prepared to match up against no. 4 Michigan State. In a game billed as Carolina’s first true test in the season, the PK80 Championship game would offer insight into the character of this year’s Heels.
Just like the aftermath of the Indiana game, UNC headed to the locker room with more questions than answers. The Spartans outplayed Carolina in every way imaginable, holding the Heels to the lowest field goal and three-point field goal percentage in program history. “Our freshmen acted like freshmen,” Roy Williams said after the game. “But so did our seniors.” A night where nothing could go right for the Tar Heels led to fans and critics alike asking questions about the team’s future. Could Maye, a bright star in this early season, maintain his level of success against long, athletic opponents? Could the veteran guards and wings connect on enough threes to stay competitive? And what about the trio of freshmen bigs? If they were getting outclassed by Michigan State’s frontcourt (Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman combined for two points on 1-11 shooting), how on Earth would they match up with, say, the Marvin Bagleys of the world? Did this team even have the talent to make it back to the Final Four? Maybe Roy—
Take a moment.
Think back to that Indiana game. How did Carolina respond? They came back to Chapel Hill and beat their next two opponents by a combined score of 178-124. Justin Jackson blossomed into a star and led them to the ACC regular season championship. And, finally, the inside toughness of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, combined with Joel Berry’s timely brilliance, led them to the national championship. When they stood there in Phoenix, confetti raining all around them, no one thought of that terrible night in Bloomington. The questions had been answered in full, and not a sliver of doubt from that night still existed.
Questioning that North Carolina team, following their 8th game of the year, was a perfect example of judging a team too early, before they’d truly had a chance to figure each other out.
The Michigan State game was ugly. Not much good, if any at all, can be taken from that display. But no matter how poorly the Heels played, the most important number to take away from that game is the date. November 26th is, at the end of the day, too early to write a team’s season off, especially a team with as much room to grow as Carolina. All four of the players listed above 6’8 on the roster are in their first year of college. They will only continue to improve as the season progresses, and they give Roy several options as far as lineup combinations go. Graduate transfer Cam Johnson, one of the best shooters on the team, has yet to play in a single game. Berry is beginning to regain his consistent shooting stroke after missing the first few games with a broken right hand. As a team, they are still growing closer and becoming more confident in each other, something that will prevent performances like the one in Portland from becoming the norm.
In their first game following the PK80, Carolina crushed an overmatched Michigan team at home in the Dean Dome, shooting 55 percent from the floor, including a blistering 65 percent in the first half when the Tar Heels never once missed consecutive shots from the floor. Maye poured in 27 and Kenny Williams had 12, continuing what has been a brilliant start to the season for the junior pair, a development that will seemingly continue to pay huge dividends. And during a TV timeout, there was Roy Cooper standing next to that giant green road sign, a reminder that an ugly loss is always better in November than in March.
So relax, sit back, and let this team grow. They will most likely surprise you with what they can accomplish.
Want proof? Look no further than last year’s national champions and the road they traveled to earn that title.
Caleb Jones is a senior at Carrboro High School.