In the hour after our stunning loss to Duke last week, my thoughts turned briefly from somber shock to what I would possibly write on the game here. Balancing my desire to preserve some memory of the event – in case we do proceed to win a national title this season – with my desire to avoid discussing or examining it in any way, I thought about titling a blank post simply “No Comment.” A week and two wins later, it isn’t remotely surprising that disappointment over the loss remains strong. I knew that night that you never fully recover when, having a won a game that would fit into the permanent record of an epic rivalry, that game abruptly becomes an instant classic loss. At the least, it will take a win at Cameron or a national title to dull the frustration.
Most of the frustration centers on how radically the narrative of this college basketball season changed in the course of a two minute long sequence of unfortunately flukish events. If any one of no less than ten unlikely occurrences – some our error, some the refs’ error and some bad luck – goes the other way, we win the game. Win that game, and there are a number of tectonic shifts in the college basketball landscape. Conversation on the game would remember the way that we survived a hot-shooting Duke team at their best to lead after the first half and asserted ourselves as the far superior team in the second. We would be ranked no lower than #4 and probably #3 in the polls, with a solid grip on the ACC regular season title and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky and Syracuse would be looking over their shoulder at our looming shadow as the best team in the country finally getting into gear. Tyler Zeller would have nearly clinched the ACC Player of the Year Award, and Harrison Barnes would have a strong argument himself after taking over the game in the second half.
Conventional wisdom scorns the ‘what if’ talk, but in reality there is little reason to avoid it. It doesn’t diminish their win in any way, but strictly for the purpose of evaluating our prospects for the rest of the season, it absolutely matters that after 38 minutes we were, as we expected, significantly better than Duke. With a one-game sample size and the fact that basketball depends so much on factors outside of the players’ control, far too little had to change to completely reorient all of the conclusions drawn based on the outcome of the game. There are two lessons there, one being to use caution in drawing conclusions based exclusively on who is ahead at the end of a mid-season game. The other is to treasure that in basketball, the nature and rules of the game are designed to produce outcomes reflective of the way the game was played, and that what happened last Wednesday happens very infrequently. If basketball crazy North Carolinians need solace, just think: our favorite sport could be soccer.
While paying ‘what if’ does offer limited if not enduring catharsis, remembering the cumulative history of the Duke v. Carolina rivalry offers relief that is much more potent. Having shared all of the thoughts on last week’s loss that I care to submit for memory, I will now share what proved to be my most effective comfort the day after. I’ve never been much into YouTube, but oh how I was thankful for it on Thursday. A quick search found this video, which I watched five or six times.