Hope is a powerful thing.
It drives us to be irrational, to believe against all odds that things can get better, no matter how bad they may look right now. For most of this season, North Carolina has been driven by hope — the hope that this talented group of first-year players will put it together, eventually, and take the Tar Heels back to national relevance once again.
Last week, it looked like the hope had died when UNC was inexplicably outplayed and embarrassed in a loss to Marquette, a sub-.500 non-conference team scheduled at the last moment. North Carolina has almost nothing to gain and everything to lose by playing, and when that final buzzer sounded, the metaphorical vultures began swirling around UNC's all-but-dead season.
But then on Saturday, in the middle of getting drubbed by an ACC-leading Florida State, hope appeared once again in the shape of a 7-foot-1 figure hailing from Newnan, Georgia.
With the season on the line, the only first-year in the rotation not to have a signature game so far stepped up against the No. 11 team in the country, and somehow, by the grace of Dean Smith and every North Carolina big man before him, powered his team to victory.
In just 24 minutes, Kessler scored a career-high 20 points, just the fourth 20-point performance for a UNC player all season, to go along with career-highs in rebounds (eight), offensive rebounds (five), blocks (four) and field goals (nine).
"I'm just as happy as I can be for him," head coach Roy Williams said. "He's one of those guys I always say, 'Do the best you can because you never know when you're going to be called on,' and he was called on today. But he's been called on the last four games as well, I think he was big in every game we've been in the last four or five games."
Kessler has transformed over the past two weeks — after not registering more than 10 minutes of playing time since Dec. 22 against N.C. State, he's now hit double-digit minutes in four of his last five games, with his 24 minutes on Saturday being a season high. He also matched or set a new career high in points in each of his last five games.
Kessler clearly looks more confident and aware on the court. At the beginning of the season, his movements seemed somewhat awkward, as if he wasn't sure how to maneuver his large frame within North Carolina's constant player movement on offense.
It was clear that he wasn't ready to contribute at the beginning of his career. That's in part because he was taken out from offseason practice twice to go into 14-day close contact quarantine, including right before the start of the season, a move that set him back from learning the playbook and feeling comfortable on the court with his teammates.
"It was tough," Kessler said. "It was really tough, but everyone in the country is going through stuff, so I'm really no different."
Kessler has always oozed potential, with his size and the possibility of one day stretching his range out to the 3-point arc, but it wasn't until the past two weeks that that potential has turned into production.
"He's been preparing non-stop, every single practice before and after," first-year wing Kerwin Walton said about Kessler. "... I know all the work he's been putting in, even in around shoot-arounds. I know he puts a lot of extra work in and it goes unseen, except for the coaches, they definitely see it."
With his coming-out performance, Kessler is showing he might be more than just a source of hope for North Carolina.
His 20 points came from doing everything a center for UNC is expected to do — run the floor hard, seal his man and hit shots from the post. Nothing fancy, just being "in the right place at the right time" as Kessler put it after the game.
Every time North Carolina has experienced a high level of success, it's come from teams made up of talented veterans who have all played together for multiple years. After his career performance, there's plenty of hope now that Kessler could become a pillar of the next great North Carolina team.