It started in the summer with the news that Leslie MacDonald, a role player from last year and the Tar Heels’ best returning 3-point shooter, would miss the year with a torn ACL. We winced, but knew this was a glancing blow. The Heels were supposed to be a juggernaut, and juggernauts don’t flinch when someone cuts off a finger. We would be fine. Students lined up for (not)Late Night With Roy at 4pm. We eagerly read along as ESPN launched a blog just for UNC on its basketball homepage. We soaked up commentary. Optimism reigned supreme.
The season began with great fanfare, highlighted by UNC’s annual pasting of Michigan State in a new, fancy venue – this time, an aircraft carrier. Even when UNC lost to UNLV and then Kentucky, we knew March was when it really mattered. As ACC play rolled around we started to get a sense of the team: they were nice kids. Off the court they loved hanging out together, communicating on Twitter so we could all feel part of their goofy lifestyle. Henson was the class clown, Barnes the businessman, Watts the elder statesman, with Kendall Marshall at the center of it all. This was, after all, the team that played outdoor pick-up against us mere mortals (sometimes spotting teams 9 points in a game to 11). On the court, they occasionally coasted on talent against inferior opponents. They won, mostly, but sometimes seemed uninspired. The Heels went through a lengthy, multi-game shooting slump where they developed a gritty defensive identity. Things started coming together.