This March, it was different.
North Carolina basketball didn’t enter the Big Dance as a one-seed, as it has 17 times in its vaunted history. Dreams of reaching national championship heights in April seemed out of reach before the new year even began — as the Tar Heels haven’t been ranked since December.
And as has been the case all year, few fans were allowed into Mackey Arena to support the blue-blooded program in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
So by the time the eighth-seeded Tar Heels suffered an 85-62 loss to nine-seed Wisconsin on Friday, disappointment was far from rare.
“This was a hard year,” head coach Roy Williams said. “When you coach kids you have a special bond with them, and this year was really hard on young people. I was really proud of them.”
Indeed it was a hard year for the Tar Heels. Entering the season with seven first-years in the rotation, a shortened offseason meant recovering from a 14-19 campaign last year was a tall task. Those seven first-years experienced little in the way of normal college life, and at times, it looked like there wouldn’t be a season at all.
“It was really tough,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said. “It was just a lot different. But I’m still very grateful. Still had a lot of fun with our guys, you see how hard we worked to get to this point. You’ve just gotta be grateful for times like this.
"Everybody dedicated themselves to one goal and you see how far we got.”
But when it came to basketball, this year was yet another unusual one in the Tar Heels’ two-year struggle to regain their dominant ways. There were moments, like UNC’s run in the ACC Tournament — setting records in its demolition of Notre Dame and sliding past fellow NCAA-qualifier Virginia Tech to advance to the semifinal. In the regular season, North Carolina swept crosstown rival Duke, which despite the Blue Devils’ own struggles, felt just as sweet as ever.
But by the time March rolled around, the Tar Heels had earned themselves the rarest moniker for a blue blood program: mediocre.
Entering March Madness, UNC sat smack in the middle of the tournament field as an eight-seed in the 16-team South Region.
“Each year you get to be a better coach and you get to be more experienced yourself,” Williams said. “Someway, somehow I’ve got to do a better job of getting the guys to make changes. And 29 games and I’m still saying a lot of the same things, so I’ve gotta figure out a way to make that happen.”
The highs and lows of North Carolina’s season were on full display against Wisconsin. After a slow start, a solid UNC run tied things up at 16 in the first half, showing signs that the Tar Heels’ best side could be coming out in the most important moment. But then, the mistake-prone thorn in the Tar Heels’ side reared its head.
With under two minutes to go in the opening frame, UNC was down by an unideal, but manageable, eight points.
Then, Wisconsin’s Brad Davison hit a 3-pointer. And knocked down two free throws. And sent another three barreling through the bottom of the basket.
A few ugly offensive possessions from the Tar Heels didn’t help the matter, and they went into the break down 16, North Carolina’s largest halftime deficit in the NCAA Tournament since the 2008 Final Four.
Two bad minutes, and UNC’s season was all but over.
“I think it came down to stops,” first-year guard Caleb Love said. “We didn’t get any stops, really, and on the offensive end, we were just all out of sorts. We didn’t get a lot of great shots on the offensive end. I think what we needed on a night like this was to get more stops to create offense for ourselves, but we couldn’t do it.”
Normally, the first weekend of March Madness is a celebration for North Carolina. One filled with anxiety — but the anxiety of a team with title aspirations, looking to roll through lower- and middle-tier opponents on the way to the Sweet 16.
But this March, it was different.
"I'm so proud of our kids for going through this, and it wasn't nearly as much fun as it's been in the past," Williams said. "You love having an experienced team in March, but I loved having my team regardless of what grade they were in."
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