Today is May 4. We are exactly a month into “The Wait”.
The wait comes every year. The wait is never fun. The wait is hard. You might even call it excruciating.
A month ago today, the Tar Heels lost what is, for me, the most excruciating Carolina loss of my 32 years on Earth. What an incredibly fun season the 2015-16 Tar Heels had; but that ending though. I shudder thinking about it. Sometimes I still punch my pillow when I wake up in the morning because they were sooooooooo close. But win or lose your last game of the season, the wait still comes.
What is this wait I speak of?
Every year we wait for the decisions of underclassmen. Will they come back to Chapel Hill? Or will they declare for the NBA draft? And if they declare, will they hire an agent (meaning they forfeit any remaining eligibility) or won’t they (meaning they maintain eligibility and could return)?
Sometimes a player will spare us the wait and rather quickly declare their intention to return. Sometimes a player will spare us the agony in a less favorable way by declaring for the draft and hiring an agent. Sometimes players we think are gone will surprise us and come back. Sometimes players we think should stay will decide to leave. Sometimes players wait a long time before deciding to come back. There are so many possibilities.
The good news for this year is that the wait is almost over. We have come to grips with the fact (or at least tried to) that Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James have to leave due to graduation. Just today, Kennedy Meeks announced that he would return to Chapel Hill for his senior season:
Proud to announce that I will be returning for my senior season!!! Oh how I love my 🐑🐑!! Thanks for all the support!😎😜
The only remaining decision is Justin Jackson. He has declared for the draft, but did not hire an agent. Based on his somewhat disappointing sophomore season, it seems logical that he would return, but crazier things have happened. So we wait.
We all hope Jackson will come back, but even if he doesn’t, we’re looking at a possible starting lineup of Joel Berry, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks. Not too shabby considering the departure the Tar Heels have experienced after other extremely successful Carolina teams of recent history (think the 08-09 and 11-12 teams).
The wait, this year, is amplified. Why? Because this year, the wait has the added dimension of potential NCAA sanctions. We all breathed a sigh of (at least temporary) relief when the most recent allegation notice came out and did not mention men’s basketball. There is some hope that the men’s basketball team will be exonerated and not face loss of scholarships or national championships or even more recruits.
The wait is only a month in and we still have about 5 more months to go before Late Night With Roy. We might see Justin Jackson that night, we might not. By that night, we might know more about the NCAA sanctions or (more likely based on the tortoise pace the NCAA is exhibiting) we might not. Regardless, that night can’t come soon enough so we can see the 2016-17 Tar Heels in action and can begin to erase the memory of Kris Jenkins’ rising up and unleashing an incredibly (and unfortunately) beautiful shot that broke all our hearts.
Quick Hitters from tonight’s 83-66 win over Syracuse in the Final Four:
First off – congrats to Brice Johnson. First Tar Heel to ever have 400 rebounds in one season. Broke Tyler Hansbrough’s record of 399. He has 408 for the season.
Carolina has won every game in this NCAA Tournament by at least 14 points. Tonight’s 17 point margin was the biggest for the Tar Heels in a Final Four.
The Heels had trouble getting the ball to the high post in first half. Interestingly, the guards (Joel Berry in particular) had great success penetrating the zone with dribble penetration.
3 pointers? We don’t need no stinking 3 pointers. 0-10 from 3 in the 1st half, while shooting 17-25 from 2. The team did end up hitting 4 (3 from Paige, 1 from Pinson) during a critical stretch of the 2nd That first 3 from Paige could not have come at a better time as Syracuse had cut the lead to 7. The 3 point shooting was offset by a 50-32 advantage in the paint and a 43-31 rebounding advantage.
Brice Johnson picked up his 2nd foul with 9:05 left in the 1st half and the score tied at 16. As per usual, he sat the rest of the half. This was scary – one of those things that causes you to lose in the Final Four. The Heels not only survived this stretch but pushed out to and 11 point lead by halftime.
In the tournament, it’s always fun to see an unexpected player step up. With Isaiah Hicks mired in foul trouble, Joel James had 6 quality minutes. He had 4 points, including a zone-friendly 15-footer from the free throw line. He had 3 rebounds, one of which was a huge defensive rebound.
With a minute to go in the first half, Grant Hill talked about Syracuse being worn down by the “physical play of the Tar Heels”. These guys are tough! And someone in the media thinks so!
Syracuse shot abysmally from the free throw line (4-13).
Syracuse rolled out the full-court pressure that keyed the comeback against Virginia. The first time this happened, UNC scored in about 4 seconds. Carolina did have a couple turnovers on the pressure later in the game, but handled it really well for the most part.
Joel Berry continues to display a keen knack for when to distribute and when to get to the rack and score. Despite an unusual 0-4 from deep, Joel quietly had a really nice game – 8 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists, 1 steal, and only 1 turnover, in 34 minutes.
Marcus Paige had one of the prettiest touch passes I’ve ever seen at the 14:11 mark of the 2nd
There were at least 3 made 3-pointers in this game that bounced on the rim multiple times before falling in.
Another great job getting key players in foul trouble. Gbinije and Richardson (the two leading scorers) both had 4 with 4:02 to go.
Syracuse was visibly fatigued in this game. By the time they went consistently to the full court press, there just wasn’t anything left in the tank. We understand experiencing that in the Final Four – 2008 against Kansas. It’s going to be hard for any team to have the energy to stay with Carolina. Especially this Syracuse team who only played 7 guys; one of which had 5 minutes, one had 19, and the other 5 players had 30 minutes or more.
The Tar Heels experienced a brain lapse midway through the 2nd It will have to be a complete 40 minute game on Monday night. Villanova will make us pay for a lull of that nature.
Syracuse made the Final Four on the strength of their defense. In their first 4 NCAA Tournament games, they had allowed 51, 50, 60, and 62 points, for an average of 55.75 points. The Heels scored 83 points tonight. In those same first 4 games, Syracuse allowed field goal percentages of 39.6, 29.7 43.6, and 41.5. The Heels shot 53.8% tonight.
Don’t look now, but Kennedy Meeks has strung together 3 strong games in a row. Tonight he had 15 points and 8 rebounds, 5 of which were offensive.
This is it. The final weekend of the 2015-16 college basketball season. No matter what happens in NRG Stadium, this will be the final time we will see this edition of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James will only pull on their Tar Heel #5, #11, and #42 jerseys once more, maybe (hopefully) twice more. As fans, we find it easy to get wrapped up in defining a season by the final game. Whether or not Carolina can win tomorrow against Syracuse and subsequently knock off Villanova or Oklahoma on Monday night, this will go down as one of my favorite (if not the favorite) teams of all time. So here’s what I want to say: before we get enraptured in the games this weekend, make sure to take time to stop, appreciate this team, and soak it up.
Make sure to think back on the careers and development of Paige, Johnson, and James.
The biggest thing I’ll remember from this year is the Marcus Paige emotional roller coaster. Here is my stream-of-consciousness thinking of Mr. Paige’s senior year thus far: “Marcus is finally healthy and primed for a huge All-American senior year; reminiscent of his sophomore campaign! He broke his hand. Oh no! Which hand??? His non-shooting hand? Okay. Whew. Dodged a bullet. When will he come back? How will the team play until then? 5-1 with an undesirable, but understandable loss in a true road game at Northern Iowa. How will he look when he finally suits up? 20 points, 5 assists, 2 steals, 1 turnover in 34 minutes at home against Maryland, an early contender for the national championship? We’ll take it. Marcus is ready to go. Then the slump. Poor Marcus. His shot looks so pretty, why won’t it go in? He’s not hitting his free throws either. Oh man he hit a couple 3s this game, he’s back!! Nope he’s not. Well the good news is Marcus is still doing everything else he should as a teammate. I just hate for his senior year to play out this way. Maybe, just maybe he’ll pick up in March. Yes – 4 of 7 from deep against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals. Here we go. Marcus is on in March. Spoke to soon. 0-7 from deep against Virginia. But man did he do a number guarding Brogdon. 2 solid, but unspectacular, games to start the NCAA tournament. But then Indiana, ohhhhh the Indiana game. With each successive 3 to start the game, I jumped higher and yelled louder. 21 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers. That’s Marcus Paige. He’s back.” Marcus might score 30 points against Syracuse or he might score 0. The Tar Heels might win and the same stats are possible against Oklahoma/Villanova. Either way, Marcus Paige will be one of my five favorite Tar Heels of all time.
Raise your hand if you thought Marcus Paige would have the struggles he’s had this year and yet, the Tar Heels would find themselves in the Final Four as the favorites to cut down the nets. The reason is because of two words: Brice Johnson. Let me use some numbers, so that we can try to wrap our heads around what a historical year he’s had. With his next rebound (just one), Johnson will have 400 for the season and will become the single-season rebounding leader in North Carolina Men’s Basketball history (and is on the doorstep of moving into the top 10 in ACC single season history). Just stop and think about that. For every rebounder that’s ever put on a UNC jersey, he has the most rebounds in any one season. And it’s not just this season. Brice is 1 of only 8 Tar Heels to have 1000 career rebounds. The others on the list are some gentlemen named Hansbrough, Perkins, Lynch, Cunningham, Jamison, Kupchak, and Daugherty. Heard of any of them? He’s currently number 6 on that list and has a realistic shot to move past Antawn Jamison for 5th. And it’s not just the rebounds, it’s also the points. Brice has scored 648 points this year, good to tie him with NBA champion Harrison Barnes’ 2011-12 campaign for 18th in one season. He will definitely continue moving up this list; whether UNC plays 1 or 2 more games will determine exactly how much further. Along similar lines, Johnson has moved into 19th on the career scoring list, again with extremely realistic chances to continue moving up. This also means that this team boasts 2 of the top 20 scorers in Carolina history (Paige is currently at #12). The combination of scoring and rebounding a lot means that Johnson has accumulated 23 double-doubles this season, again the most in a single-season in UNC history. He currently is averaging 17.1 ppg and 10.5 rpg this year. Only 4 Tar Heels have averaged a double-double since 1975-76. Their names? Antawn Jamison, Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, John Henson. Mr. Brice Johnson, we thank you for giving us one of the greatest single years any player has ever had in Chapel Hill. I think all that yelling Roy has done just might have made a difference.
I will remember this year as the year that the “not tough” Tar Heels suffered 6 losses (to this point), but only by a combined 22 points. And they never lost by more than 6. And they had a lead at some point in EVERY GAME THEY PLAYED. In fact, the Heels also had a least a tie in the 2nd half of every game they played. Probably the most impressive of these stats is that, of Carolina’s 38 games to date, they’ve held a 2nd half lead in every game but one (@ Virginia).
I will remember the collapse at home to Duke. As that game wore on, and the Heels struggled to create separation, I thought, “there’s no way we lose this game”. However, there were images of Austin Rivers floating in the back of my head. I will readily admit that after that loss, I really wondered what this team would amount to come tournament time. But now we have answer. The Tar Heels of the 2016 ACC Tournament were a thing of beauty. This team is tough.
I will remember this as a Carolina team that returned almost completely intact (we miss you JP!) and added a couple nice pieces in Luke Maye and Kenny Williams. I will remember this as the year that a Carolina team with no “superstars” and possible NCAA sanctions looming moved past several years of uncertainty (early departures after 2011-12, the PJ Hairston debacle, Paige’s injury-riddled junior year, etc), joined together, and rose above it all to make the Final Four with as good a shot as you’re going to get at winning a national championship.
It’s been a great year. We still have 1, maybe 2, games left. So soak it up Tar Heel fans and let’s enjoy this epilogue.
Quick Hitters from UNC’s 85-66 victory over Providence in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament.
A rough start to both halves for Carolina. In the 1st half, the Tar Heels first three offensive possessions: 0-2 from 3, 1 turnover, no post touches. In fact, the Heels attempted three 3s in the first 5 possessions. In the 2nd half, Providence started hot, reeling off 6 points in 75 seconds. Over that same stretch, Marcus Paige struggled: 2 turnovers and a missed 3.
After struggling to get the ball inside on the first couple possessions, Carolina made a concerted effort to control that portion of the court. 18 of the first 21 points came from inside. For the game, Carolina dominated the boards (42-24), points in the paint (46-18), and 2nd chance points (16-1).
Providence certainly proved to be the 2-headed monster they were made out to be with Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. And what a show they put on. I said in my preview that the main key to the game was stopping, or at least limiting, Dunn and Bentil. They certainly got their points (29 & 21 respectively), but their overall effectiveness was limited by foul trouble.
Speaking of foul trouble, Kris Dunn picked up his second with 11:07 to go in the 1st Unfortunately the Tar Heels couldn’t capitalize on Dunn sitting out the rest of the half and, in fact, were outscored by Providence by 1 in his absence. The 2nd half was a different story. Both players had to scale back on their aggressiveness as they picked up 3rd fouls (Bentil – 17:54, Dunn 13:54), 4th fouls (Dunn – 8:44, Bentil – 8:14), and Bentil eventually fouled out at 7:23. It was during these minutes that Carolina put the game completely out of reach.
Sadly for Providence, Dunn and Bentil were the only ones doing anything offensively. Other than their combined 50 points (out of 66 total for Providence), the rest of Providence’s roster had serious trouble scoring. I said in my game preview that Rodney Bullock was the X-factor for Providence. He had 2 points off of free throws, shot 0-7 from the floor, and had 4 turnovers.
Providence did a pretty good job controlling pace early on, but the Tar Heels asserted their will as the game wore on and the Friars wore down. Fast break points were 20-8 in favor of the Tar Heels.
Too many turnovers for Carolina. 7 in the 1st half, 8 in the 2nd – 15 in all.
Carolina closed the 1st half on a 9-2 run. The biggest of that stretch was not Brice Johnson’s monster block, but rather Nate Britt’s strip that lead to 2 free throws and a 30-28 lead.
2 big defensive shifts swayed the game: One, the move to Justin Jackson guarding Dunn. Dunn still got his, but it was obvious that Jackson’s length bothered Dunn. The second shift, was the now oft-employed small ball line-up that put Theo Pinson on Ben Bentil.
What a sequence for Marcus Paige from 10:29-9:56 of the 2nd He came flying in for an incredibly athletic offensive rebound and tip-in, followed by a defensive rebound, then buried a 3.
Friars’ coach Ed Cooley said they needed to hit 10 3s to be in the game. The Friars shot 6-23 from deep.
Heels made a lot of hey at the free throw line (19-21). Only missed free throws were from Joel James on an and-1 and Luke Maye in the closing seconds of the game. The starters, Hicks, and Britt were a combined 18-18.