The Snakebit Season: North Carolina’s Cursed Greatness

 North Carolina Tar HeelsLast August, I sat down to interview UNC Sports Information Director Steve Kirschner in his office near the Dean Dome. We spoke about his job as the head PR rep for North Carolina basketball, his experience with the coaches and the players, and the prospects for the 2011-12 team. He was very generous with his time — the interview is comprehensive — and I couldn’t help but think of one particular moment as UNC watched its season end against Kansas on Sunday. As we segued into speaking about the current Tar Heels, I told him that I expected Carolina to win a national title, and that if they didn’t, the Duke propaganda angle would be that the whole year was a failure.

He laughed politely, and said, “Roy would throw you out of the office right now.” He meant Roy Williams, of course, the coach who has won two national titles at Carolina. Kirschner went on to say, “It’s one game and done. And if you can tell me that we’ll have our entire team healthy and all playing great come the first day of the NCAA tournament. I’d say, ‘We’ll have a chance to play.’” He continued to issue disclaimers, mentioning teams of the past that had made surprise runs in the tournament, and others who had languished despite incredible talent.

I nodded, but at the time I thought his words were mere hedging, the typical caution of someone who wouldn’t be caught dead guaranteeing a national title, and who would break out in a cold sweat if one of his players ever did. In reality, I didn’t expect anything less than a Carolina championship, and I didn’t think he did, either. But I hadn’t been around college sports long enough to understand the fragility of even the surest foundations. Kirschner had, and he knew exactly what could go wrong over the course of an unpredictable season.

At that moment in the interview, both us were probably looking at the other and thinking the same thing: “This guy is crazy.” One of us was right.

April 11, 2011

The news broke on a Monday that Harrison Barnes would forgo the NBA draft and return to North Carolina for his sophomore season. A week and a half earlier, Tyler Zeller and John Henson made similar announcements, meaning that all of the spectacular young talents on Carolina’s roster would be back in powder blue.

Barnes, of course, was the wunderkind 6-foot-8 forward from Ames, Iowa, the top recruit of his class who had finally begun to live up to his reputation near the end of the season with strong performances in the ACC tournament and the Big Dance. Zeller, 7 feet tall, was the preternatural inside scorer from Indiana, gifted with the court sense and body control to pour in basket after basket with ungainly grace, not unlike a former Carolina star named Tyler Hansbrough. Henson, 6-foot-11, was the reigning ACC defensive player of the year, a one-man block party who discouraged penetration and would combine with Zeller to create the best frontcourt tandem in Division I.

They were joined by Dexter Strickland, a senior junior slashing guard who gave the team a much-needed jolt of quickness, and Kendall Marshall, the incredible freshman whose vision and passing ability were the perfect complement to UNC’s other stars. With weapons all around him, Marshall made the whole machine go.

It was no surprise that Barnes, who Skyped his college decision live from Iowa a year earlier, released a statement about his decision. Nor did it seem boastful when he stated the eventual goal: “As a team, we’re preparing for a special season. My offseason plans are to diligently work on honing my basketball skills in all areas with one team-goal in mind — to bring the 2012 national championship home to UNC.”

July 14, 2011

The NC Pro-Am is a summer league held in Durham, N.C., featuring the best players from the Triangle schools, as well as a smattering of recruits and well-known professionals. It was started by a group of friends, one of whom was former Tar Heel legend Jerry Stackhouse, and it fills the gym at North Carolina Central on summer weeknights. On Thursday, July 14, Carolina reserve Leslie McDonald, who had been the team’s best 3-point shooting threat a year earlier, was playing against a squad that included Duke’s Austin Rivers when he pulled up lame on a drive. As the players gathered around, he writhed in pain. It was an ACL tear.

At the time, several stories noted that this was an unfortunate loss for Carolina, but not a staggering one. McDonald would have been sixth man at best, and underclassmen Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston gave the Tar Heels reserve shooters to take his place. But as an omen of the shape the season would take, hindsight makes McDonald’s fall look like the slight tremors, barely felt, before an earthquake.

November 26, 2011

The Tar Heels came into the season with a near-unanimous no. 1 ranking (62 of 65 first-place votes went to Carolina in the AP poll, and 30 of 31 in the Coaches’ Poll), and an opening win against Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson, in front of President Barack Obama, kept them safely ensconced at the top.

But on the last Saturday in November, the Tar Heels played UNLV at the Las Vegas Invitational. This was a road game, masquerading as a neutral venue affair, and for the first time all season, the weak perimeter defense of the Tar Heels was on display. A lack of quickness handicapped them (as did offensive rebounding, but that problem would be short-lived), and UNLV won 90-80. There was something very lackadaisical about the Carolina’s performance, and the Heels dropped to fifth in the next AP Top 25 poll. Four months later, it’s hard to even remember how shocking the result was, and what it revealed about the national title favorites. This was an indication that the juggernaut everyone expected would have to actually work for a championship.

December 3, 2011

With a chance to right the ship against the new no. 1 team in the country, Carolina traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, and lost by one when Anthony Davis blocked John Henson’s jump shot in the final seconds. It was another worrisome game for the Tar Heels. Despite shooting 11-of-18 from 3 — a percentage they would rarely duplicate for the rest of the season — and holding Kentucky 4-of-17 from distance, they hadn’t pulled it out. In other words, a team had actually played worse than Carolina, at least in some respects, and still managed to win.

At the same time, the near-win proved the Tar Heels at their best could compete with the top teams in the country. But how consistently would they be at their best?

January 14

Following the Kentucky loss, UNC reeled off nine straight wins against inferior competition. After taking care of Miami at home, the Heels went to Tallahassee for their first ACC road game. Leonard Hamilton had built the Seminoles into the ACC’s third-best team, after Carolina and Duke, and this was the year he wanted to take the next step. Nobody was under the impression that the game would be anything but tough for the Tar Heels.

What they didn’t expect was that Carolina would look utterly feckless in a 33-point loss. A 4-for-21 performance from 3, 0-for-7 from Henson at the line, and Deividas Dulkys’ 8-for-10 night from beyond the arc triggered an avalanche that left Carolina buried. At Hamilton’s suggestion, Roy Williams took everyone off the floor with 14 seconds remaining — everyone, that is, except the five walk-ons who stayed to finish the game and endure the headlong charge of the FSU students.

Afterward, Williams claimed that he hadn’t realized the walk-ons were still out there, thinking instead that the game had been called with time left on the clock. The explanation, unlikely as it sounded, only compounded the embarrassment for North Carolina. As with the UNLV loss, it was a tough one to figure out. A loss wasn’t totally unexpected, but a rout? Writers and pundits began digging for psychological angles, and the one they came up grasping most often was that the Heels were cursed with a certain entitlement, a demeanor that precluded them from finding the necessary fight when adversity struck.

January 20

In an away win at Virginia Tech, Dexter Strickland tore his ACL early in the second half. Like McDonald, the injury meant the end to his season. “God always has a plan!” Strickland tweeted out the next day. The injury made things tougher for Williams, who lost one of the few players with the quickness to penetrate from the perimeter in Strickland. Bullock, whose defense had been a pleasant surprise as the season progressed, moved to the starting five. But what Carolina gained in shooting, they lost in the dribble-drive, and the halfcourt offense felt more stagnant. Any remaining fluidity came from Marshall’s passing acumen, or the rare times when Barnes attacked the basket with his patented spin.

February 8

In their major challenge since Strickland went down, the Tar Heels dominated most of the game against rival Duke. Zeller had become even more of a force on the boards, and the talent disparity between the two teams was quickly evident. Duke’s only recourse was to shoot 3s and pray, and that tactic found them trailing by 10 with two minutes left. Then a stunned Carolina crowd watched as the ensuing comeback shocked the Heels into a panic, and a looming disaster culminated in Rivers’ miracle 3-pointer at the buzzer.

March 3

The Tar Heels that came into Durham on Saturday were a team on a rampage. Florida State, which was in prime position to take a share of the ACC, had dropped a puzzling game to Boston College, and now the Tobacco Road powerhouses were set to fight it out for the ACC regular season championship.

It was never a contest. Forced to watch the highlights of the previous loss before tip-off, Carolina came out lean and fierce, fighting every moment to show Duke where it belonged in the rightful order. There were no more miracles, and the Heels coasted to an 18-point victory. Nobody expected it to be so difficult, but Carolina had won the ACC championship. More importantly, they were playing like a team with more championships to come.

March 9

In the ACC tournament quarterfinals against Maryland, a formality the Heels would win with ease, Henson drove to the basket and took a hard foul from Ashton Pankey. The result was a sprained left wrist. Earlier that week, he had won his second straight ACC defensive player of the year award, as well as being named to the First Team All-ACC. With he and Zeller patrolling the paint, Carolina’s opponents reached the foul line at the lowest rate in college basketball, a sign of the reluctance with which anyone dared to approach. The Heels also put up the 10th-best offensive rebounding rate, an exceptional number for a team that loved to fast break.

But the injury sidelined Henson for the rest of the ACC tournament. Carolina escaped with a win over NC State in the semifinals, but couldn’t quite keep up with Florida State in the championship game. Williams has a reputation for not loving the ACC tournament, which he once famously called a “cocktail party,” and his two national championship teams bowed out before the finals in 2005 and 2009. Henson’s injury surely didn’t improve his perception that there’s more to lose than gain, and the status of his best defender was unclear heading into the NCAA tournament.

March 18

In the round of 32, Carolina met Creighton in what looked like it might be a difficult match-up. Henson was returning for the first time, his left wrist taped up. Coincidentally or not, Creighton players hit the injured wrist several times in the first half. When Grant Gibbs chopped it as Henson went up for a layup, Henson became so angry that he yelled in Gibbs’ face, earning a technical foul. Gibbs winked to his teammates after the confrontation.

Henson’s blowup propelled Carolina to a huge run that essentially secured the game, but the flip side to the response was Henson’s repeated grimace whenever the wrist took a blow. He would play the remaining games, especially against Kansas, with slightly less aggression and confidence than fans had come to expect.

But the worst disaster of all for Carolina came in the second half. Driving to the basket, Marshall absorbed a blow from Ethan Wragge and tried to soften the landing with his right hand. But the wrist buckled, and he fractured his scaphoid bone. Carolina won without trouble, but Marshall needed surgery to place a pin in the injured wrist. His status was kept intentionally vague in the week leading up to the Sweet 16, but others who had suffered similar injuries, like tournament analyst Kenny Smith, correctly predicted that Marshall would be unable to play.

And like that, the one indispensable player was gone, and Carolina’s title hopes were all but snuffed.

March 23

In an overtime win against 13-seed Ohio, Barnes shot 3-for-16, including 2-for-9 from 3, turned the ball over five times, and repeatedly missed pressure shots down the stretch as he turned a potential blowout into a near upset.

It was a symbolic performance from Barnes, who never quite lived up to the high expectations engendered by his high school career and the flashes of brilliance at the end of 2011. An Atlantic story shows a side of Barnes that has become gratingly familiar to his fans and detractors alike: Barnes the entrepreneur. He’s been obsessed with the business angle of his ability since high school, and every decision is made with his future marketing potential in mind. He’s also not shy about drawing comparisons to players like Michael Jordan whose appeal transcended basketball and branched out into various advertising avenues. Barnes looks at himself as a brand, but the problem here is a classic one of putting the cart before the horse. Athletes like Jordan and Tiger Woods capitalized on the marketing side of things only after they had established themselves as legends, and their great ability came about because of an inner fire that placed winning as the foremost priority and desire.

Barnes, on the other hand, seems to consider himself a business person first, and a basketball player second, which is a critical mistake when at this point in his life, his main earning potential derives from his playing ability. Where Jordan seemed opportunistic, Barnes seems pompous and calculating, and the image-first approach, speaking only for myself, can be very hard to stomach. It didn’t surprise me in the least when Marshall’s father sounded some incautious words of protest (“rich get richer“) when Barnes made the ACC first team ahead of his son.

But as the mangled priorities persisted, Barnes seemed to get worse in big games, showing a startling lack of mobility and a stoic bearing that looked a lot like fear.

March 25

It all came to an end on Sunday, when a Kansas team that would not have been able to hang with Carolina under normal circumstances managed the rare feat of out-rebounding the Heels and pulling away down the stretch. It didn’t help that the game was in St. Louis, the latest bit of bad luck Carolina was forced to endure. Marshall was gone, Henson was limited (due to both his wrist and a sprained ankle during the game), Zeller was his usual brilliant self, and Barnes disappeared down the stretch. As the Jayhawks cut down the nets, Barnes sat with a towel draped over his head before giving a curiously emotionless interview. Zeller turned to religion: “I may question why God put us in this situation but at the same time, God has a reason for everything,” he said.

As the dream of a national title faded in St. Louis, the only remnants of the optimism that began last April were a resigned grin on Williams’ face and the desperate urging of Marshall, wearing a suit on the sideline and refusing to concede. But in the end, Carolina fans and players will always look at 2012 as the lost season. They’d been outplayed, and Kansas deserved every bit of credit, but they had to wonder if things could have been different. Yet as the Jayhawks pulled away, there was nothing they could do.

Filed Under: College Basketball, March Madness, NCAA tournament, North Carolina, Shane Ryan, UNC

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere