The most anticipated seasons in (my) North Carolina basketball history

The tipping point that inspired me to break my off-season hiatus came this week when the blog Rush the Court (of which I am not a reader, credit Twitter for the referral) published their season preview for UNC and called this season “the most anticipated season in North Carolina basketball history.” It was not a subtle remark made mid-sentence either, but a bold statement appearing as the first line of the story.

It is remarks like these that remind me why I would not have enjoyed a career in sports journalism. Designed purely to serve as a hype-generating, cleverly dramatic opener, the statement is at least unnecessary. Worse, though, is that it is unequivocally and colossally untrue. It takes a blindly superficial attempt at hype (so often typical of sports media) and a shockingly short memory to make such a ridiculous statement in the fall of 2012, only three years removed from the 2009 basketball season.

Granted, the author of the post claims that this season tops 2009. He is wildly incorrect, and that he even attempts the claim shows that his historical perspective of Carolina basketball is seriously lacking. In truth, for a program accustomed to preseason #1 rankings – and to being unfairly loaded with talent – 2012 is closer to the norm than it is to the historically anomalous 2009 season, which even for Carolina presented an unprecedented challenge of hype.

Only in 2009 did four players, rather than three, spurn the NBA, three of whom declared before withdrawing and all of whom were rising juniors or seniors. Far more importantly, since admittedly Harrison Barnes’ decision to return is the most bizarre of the lot, only in 2009 had the Heels been a #1 seed with essentially the same team two years running. In both tournaments we fell short in dramatic losses, but progressed to the Final Four in 2008, one round farther than in 2007. Only in 2009 did we return one of the greatest players in conference history and one of the most beloved among Carolina fans, and only in 2009 were all of our core players juniors and seniors that we had been watching perform at a historically high level for two full seasons, becoming highly invested them in ways that we haven’t yet, purely as a function of time, with Barnes and his teammates.

In his autobiography, Roy Williams speaks of persistent sleepless nights leading up to the 2009 season. If after 2012, it is Ohio State or Kentucky cutting down the nets, Carolina will have failed, no doubt, but people will understand. In 2009, that was certainly not the case; it would have been incomprehensible for anyone but the Heels to win, especially after early season thrashings of Notre Dame and Michigan State. Even more difficult personally for Roy was his attachment to the team, and particularly to Hansbrough, that made the prospect of not winning a title agonizing to a degree that falling short this year could not possibly attain.

It seems odd to make this argument at the present time – it would be more fun to agree with the author, given that it is 2012, not 2009. But I was there as a student, and perhaps for that reason his error struck a nerve. But alas, in honor of the approaching arrival of the 2012 season, one that is highly anticipated for a team that, while not 2009, could be historically good and does seem to have a uniquely strong connection to the students and fans: an actual ranking of the most anticipated seasons in my short lifetime of Carolina basketball history.

1) 2008-2009: As mentioned above, no other season comes close. We had never experienced that level of anticipation before, and only perfectly unusual circumstances would allow for it again.

2) 2004-2005: Carolina fans should be thankful that Roy is two for two in delivering national championships during the years in which we were expected to win. Dean Smith was one for a whole bunch of seasons, not because of poor coaching, but because that is often the reality of college basketball (in 1982 Carolina was the preseason favorite, but in 1993 we began the year #7 and were not ranked #1 until early March). The 2005 team was not only expected to contend for the title, but was expected to redeem at last Carolina basketball from the abyss of the previous six seasons. That journey was best exemplified by a senior class that went 8-20 as freshmen and a trio of juniors that represented one of the most heralded recruiting classes in program history. Both groups weathered the storm of initial underachievement and the firing of Matt Doherty, and even Roy Williams at the time brought his additional pressure of having never won a national title. We are fortunate that this squad got the job done, as it set us on course for the most successful five season stretch in program history, and having not won a national title in over a decade, it was a long anticipated event.

3) 2011-2012: It doesn’t take long to arrive at the present season, which, for all of its contrast to 2009, is itself an anomaly, especially for the current state of college basketball. It was such a shock that this team stayed together without NBA defection that we forget how young this team is; we haven’t yet had time to fully invest ourselves as fans in Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, especially in the case of Barnes, from whom many of us had resolved not to expect more than one season. In any case, the gap between our talent and the rest of the country, excepting Kentucky, may be the largest it has ever been. This team, like 2005, hopes to culminate the escape of its own abyss (2009-2010 and early 2010-2011), and like 2009, returns after a dramatic near miss last season. Unique to this year’s squad is the special connection these players seem to have to each other; I cannot remember another core group of players who were unanimous in the level of joy this team has for playing basketball in Chapel Hill. Capping off the anticipation is that a title this season would be our third in eight seasons, placing Roy Williams’ tenure rightfully at the pinnacle of the sport as its most recent dynasty.

4) 2002-2003: This season did not end as happily as the first two, but there is no questioning its spot on the list nonetheless. Carolina fans had toiled through an embarrassing 8-20 season the year before, and resorted to following intently the developing stories of the incoming recruiting class, especially local South Carolina superstar Ray Felton. As they were one of college basketball history’s most highly regarded classes, and given our program’s prolonged struggle, Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were stamped as nothing short of saviors before they set foot on campus. Less than a month into the season the three freshmen led us to an upset of Roy’s highly ranked Kansas team, and Carolina fans were relieved to again be in the national spotlight. Stumbling down the stretch led to the firing of Matt Doherty, but early on at least this season was anticipated at a historic level.

5) 1997-1998: This year’s team contends with 1982 and 2009 as one of Carolina’s most talented groups, though unfortunately it would eventually fall short in the Final Four for the second season in a row. Nonetheless, they returned nearly everyone from that first Final Four team, including juniors Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, both of whom would be top-five NBA selections after the season. They were deep with NBA talent for a supporting cast, and they were guided by one of college basketball’s all-time assist leaders, Ed Cota. Additionally, this season was Bill Guthridge’s first as the replacement for Dean Smith, the first coaching change for the program in nearly 40 years. I can remember as a ten year old child thinking that my time had finally come to experience a national title I would remember, and wondering if my generation was somehow cursed when it ended. That level of anticipation earns this season the final spot on the list.

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