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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: UNC was not in the men’s NCAA Tournament, and I’m okay with that

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UNC graduate manager Brandon Robinson comforts sophomore guard Caleb Love (2) after a national championship loss to Kansas in New Orleans on Monday, April 4, 2022. UNC lost 72-69.

When I heard that for the first time since 2010, the North Carolina men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, I made up my mind that I would not watch a second of it. If my team wasn’t playing, I did not care. 

In a matter of four days, I was sitting on my couch watching every minute of the first round.

I realized that I could either wallow in the reality that the Tar Heels missed March Madness or I could watch the teams that made the tournament. Much to my surprise, watching the games without my team was almost just as fun. 

Bracket selection

I have picked UNC to win the championship every year that it makes the tournament. While I recognize this strategy likely won’t lead me to victory in bracket pools, I can’t help but root for my team unconditionally — regardless of their seed. 

This year, that option was no longer there and I had to look critically at qualifying teams. While I typically struggle to pick the right upsets (and I did this year, too), I attempted to strategize, comparing teams’ rosters, strengths of schedule and overall rankings.

Although I couldn’t be an optimist for the Tar Heels this time around, it was still fair game to root against adversaries like Creighton (we still remember what happened in 2012) and Duke. For these teams, I threw logic aside, choosing these teams to lose in the first round. 

While my bracket was busted within 48 hours, it was still exciting to ditch my usual tactics and make a (mostly) honest bracket. Picking teams meant having temporary favorites, and it was surprisingly fulfilling to watch them win big games and even make history.

Witnessing historic moments

The biggest thing that softened the blow of the Tar Heels’ absence was watching Cinderella teams shine. 

Most notably, the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights became just the second No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed after beating Purdue in one of the most fun-to-watch games of the tournament. 

The overwhelming dominance of Cinderella teams meant another historic moment in the NCAA Tournament – for the first time, all four No. 1 seeds were eliminated before the Elite Eight.

And as the competition got stronger, underdogs remained. Three of the four teams competing in the Final Four made it there for the first time in their program's history. If I can’t watch UNC compete for a national title, at least it’s possible the winner will be a first-time champion.

The tournament has looked quite different this year, but that’s what makes it so fun to watch. The unpredictability of lower seeds defying the odds leaves me no choice but to root for their success.

It’s bigger than basketball

The post-game interviews with players and coaches demonstrate that this tournament is about so much more than just the sport being played. It’s a culmination of players’ lifelong dreams and nonstop work. 

After No. 8 seed Arkansas eliminated No. 1 seed Kansas, Razorback head coach Eric Musselman and guard Davonte Davis shared a special moment on the floor. 

“I feel like he’s my son," Musselman shared about Davis.

Davis, after dropping 25 points in the big upset, described how he felt. 

“I put in a lot of work,” he said. “This team has been struggling and we figured it out, and I’m glad we did at the right time.”

Hearing the players describe their emotions after leaving everything on the court makes it clear how much heart there is in college basketball. 

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San Diego State senior guard Darrion Trammell shared his thoughts with a reporter after his game-winning free throw helped his team make it to the Final Four. 

“I’ve been dreaming of this my whole life,” he said. “I’m just super excited right now, I can’t even put this into words.” 

After witnessing moments like these, I don’t care that my team didn’t make it. And I don’t care that my bracket is full of big red lines and X’s if the spotlight is on teams that rarely get any news coverage or rings. That's not what this is about. 

Prior to this season’s untimely end, it was expected that the Tar Heels make it into the tournament each year. Now, fans are reminded that it’s something that isn’t guaranteed.

UNC’s absence from the 2023 NCAA Tournament has made me to realize that the next season can only get better. This troubling season means that their next victories will only be sweeter – after all, who doesn’t love a comeback?

@mbnobles_

opinion@dailytarheel.com