Carolina’s place in a new era of college basketball

In his eight year tenure as the head coach at North Carolina, Roy Williams has essentially coached three distinct basketball teams. Those teams are roughly (though not that roughly) defined as the groups of players from 2003-2005, from 2005-2009, and from 2009-2012. In the current state of college basketball, and especially in our case since the first two of those eras concluded after mass NBA departures from National Championship teams, there isn’t a whole lot of continuous overlap as there used to be: only David Noel, Rayshawn Terry,  Marcus Ginyard, Deon Thompson, and Ed Davis played significant roles on teams in separate groups.

As noted above, Roy is 2-2 thus far winning national titles with his teams, and Carolina fans who lived through Dean Smith going 2-for-a whole bunch realize how fortunate we are to have experienced the last seven years. It is partly a reflection of this new state of the sport; there are fewer really good teams each year, so the programs such as North Carolina that consistently field really good teams have a better shot. That we fell short in a loaded 2008 Final Four field before cruising to a relatively easy title a year later demonstrates this point clearly.

But it in no way devalues the accomplishments of Roy’s squads; to win a national title you are only asked to be the best team in a given year, and there is no question that Roy has done a better job than anyone in the country fielding title-competitive teams consistently. Other powerhouse programs, such as Duke and UCLA, have faltered in this respect. More importantly, with the easier path comes far greater expectations, and this may actually be the defining characteristic of this new era of college basketball.

The extent to which our expectations of Carolina basketball teams have become title-or-bust is a unique aspect of our fan culture post 2005, and it is largely possible only because we managed to keep so many players from turning pro that could have bolted, leading to an unprecedented separation between us and the rest of the country. We have yet to experience how we as fans will remember one of these teams should it fail to realize its potential, and one has to wonder how it will be different than past teams (1977, 1998) that fell short at a time when expectations were huge, but not quite this huge.

Phil Ford is the most beloved Tar Heel basketball player to have never won a national title, maybe the most beloved player period, and in the collective memory of Carolina fans, there is no discernible separation of Ford from his champion counterparts, Jordan, Worthy, and Hansbrough. Ford’s teams were loaded, and they were, like most Carolina teams, supposed to win; when they didn’t, it was a major disappointment (as reported to me by those who were actually alive when it happened). But, just as when Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter’s teams lost in 1997 and 1998, it was viewed as a part of the nature of March Madness: nothing had to go terribly wrong to lose one game, it is merely something to be accepted about a one-and-done format.

That was not true of 2009; had that team not won a championship, we would still be looking for cosmic answers to a conspiracy of bad fortune. The same is true for 2012, and had it been true in 1977, it might have impacted our historical impression of the team.

As unpleasant as is the prospect of seeing this team fall short, Carolina fans should relish the significance for our program of these heightened expectations. Of the other powerhouse programs, only last year’s Duke team has experienced what we are about to experience for a second time, and only we have experienced it and delivered.

Already renown as one of the legendary programs of the sport in 2004, we have since undergone a complete redefinition: we hung two more national title banners and are now the one program that fails, not in a vague, its-always-our-long-term-goal sense, but in a severely literal sense if it builds a team that doesn’t win a title. Those sort of expectations, I’m sure, weigh heavily on Roy Williams’ mind this season, yet we can appreciate the expectations as symbols of stature rather than burdens. That falling short in this new era will happen eventually, though hopefully not this year, should be liberating, because when it does, we will come back again next time remaining as the best program in college basketball.

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