What Could Have Been

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.

And then, disaster struck. If losing McDonald was a glancing shot, the January news that Dexter Strickland tore his ACL was a stomach punch. We reeled. Doug Gottlieb and Andy Davis, among others, reported daily and with barely-concealed glee about Carolina’s damaged title hopes. And they were damaged. Strickland, or Dex, was Carolina’s best on-ball defender. He had learned to (occasionally) shoot after being a pure layup man the year before. (And he was good for one spectacular dunk every couple games.)

But even without Dexter, Carolina was still a dangerous puncher. Dex was much improved from last year, but he still wasn’t a mainstay. UNC relied on Zeller, Henson, and Barnes for scoring, and as long as Marshall was running the show, you knew every game would be competitive (well, except for Florida State). The defense was nice, and we missed it, but Carolina is always about offense. And we were. With Reggie “The Sheriff” Bullock stepping into the starting role, UNC’s perimeter offense improved a bit. Where there was no 3-point threat from Strickland, Bullock developed into a reliable option. And as his defense came around, we started to believe that we could weather the storm. The juggernaut had a few holes, but it was still better than almost every other team in the field. By the end of the season, Bullock himself was Carolina’s best on-ball defender. Yes, we had taken a staggering blow, but we shook it off.

As March approached, things seemed to be going well (again, Florida State excluded. I remain convinced that everyone had bad Cookout or something). A stolen Duke victory – and it was, as Duke had no business winning the first game – was avenged in triumphant fashion at Cameron Hansbrough Indoor Stadium.  Anticipating a deep March run, I wrote about my disdain for the ACC Tournament as a useless and risky fatigue machine for a finely-tuned engine like North Carolina.

Unfortunately, I was right. In a quarterfinal matchup against Maryland, John Henson – who was a mainstay of the team, and had somehow managed to develop a reliable jump shot – fell awkwardly, injuring his wrist. This… was a haymaker. Henson tried to play through obvious pain for one or two possessions before coming out. The look on Henson’s face said it all. This was a huge problem.

With the news that Henson would miss the ACC Tournament final against Florida State, Carolina fans went into true panic mode. Surely, this was too much. No way could Carolina, even with all its depth and talent, overcome the loss of a lottery pick, its best defender, and its best deadeye shooter. Compounding the problem was the recurring report that Harrison Barnes, another of the Big Three, had been playing on a bum, weak ankle for most of the spring. #WristWatch2012 was on.

UNC lost that final game against Florida State, a game that no one truly shed many tears over. Anyone watching that game saw that UNC’s heart simply wasn’t in it, much like 2009’s edition of the tournament when they rolled over against the Seminoles, too. The comparisons were starting to line up with Tyler Hansbrough’s championship squad.

When the brackets were released, we stared incredulously at our draw. The toughest game we could have had until the likely Elite 8 showdown with Kansas should have been hot-shooting Michigan. And Kansas, honestly, wasn’t that good. UNC should coast into New Orleans, even with a gimpy John Henson. We looked up tickets and asked off work.

Optimism was once again high, especially since Kendall Marshall had recently become a complete player, scoring at will while shattering the ACC record for assists in a season. This team was headed for a championship showdown with Kentucky, and no one would stop us.

No one, that was, except for 2nd-round opponent Creighton. Heels fans got a taste of what was to come in the 2nd half when Robert Gibbs took a Mighty Ducks-style slash at newly-returned John Henson’s wrist early in the game, then had the audacity to wink at his bench when Henson retaliated and drew a technical foul. Some minutes later, center Greg Echinique decked Tyler Zeller on a runout with a forearm shiver worthy of Adrian Peterson. We were pissed and expecting a righteous victory. Carolina felt the same way, waking up after the technical to effectively erase Creighton from the game. And then, in the second half, everything unraveled.

To be honest, the play that effectively ended Carolina’s run was unremarkable. Marshall, driving down the court, was fouled hard by Creighton’s Ethan Wragge. It wasn’t dirty, Marshall bounced up, and everything seemed fine. But then Marshall went to the bench after a couple of possessions and never came back. The victory against Creighton complete, Heels fans waited anxiously for the postgame press conference. A win meant nothing without the Heels’ unquestioned leader.

The news that Kendall Marshall had broken his wrist was devastating. In the two hours after the game, Carolina fans raced to WebMD and sought out doctor-friends to learn all they could about a “scaphoid fracture.” Marshall was scheduled for next-day surgery.

There was originally a thought that Marshall might, heroically, play. But as the week went on and Friday’s game approached, it became increasingly more likely that a miracle would not come to pass. Against Ohio, Kendall was ruled out. It might have looked like the giant could take the sledgehammer blow and keep rolling, but it was suddenly down on one knee while the crowd gasped.

Of anyone on the team, Marshall was the one indispensable player. He was the most-loved, most-respected, and most well-liked player on the team. Marshall gave UNC its identity, its character, and its steadying influence. Carolina without Marshall was Barcelona without Xavi and the Indianapolis Colts without Peyton Manning.  And we knew it. The spontaneous “Pass Fir5t” movement that sprung up on Twitter was, at its core, simply our take on Dean Smith’s pointing to the passer. One of our own had fallen, and we wanted to give notice that Marshall meant more than just damaged victory hopes.

But the juggernaut’s head was dangling by a thread, and the other, smaller punches it had absorbed over the season were suddenly bruising rib-breakers. With no Strickland, there was no one to back up Marshall except stopgap Stilman White (who, to his credit, performed well). With no McDonald, the Heels were razor thin on the perimeter. Senior Justin Watts, a forward, would have to play point.

Had the Heels’ Sweet 16 opponent been anyone other than undersized Ohio, Carolina’s trip to the Midwest would likely have ended before the weekend began. As it was, the Heels snuck by mostly by virtue of the Bobcats running out of gas. But the team looked like a complete disaster – an All-Star cast playing together with no practice, with the caveat that the All-Stars couldn’t score. Without Marshall, Carolina was de-souled.

In some ways, Kansas’ victory over Carolina, a much closer game than it had any business being, was a final, merciful end to a torturous last three weeks. There was nothing fun about this March – nothing fun about watching John Henson grimace on the bench or replays of Tyler Zeller getting dropped by a Creighton troglodyte. There was especially no joy in watching the heart and soul of the Carolina team sit on the bench, desperately trying to will his replacements into the next round. You felt for these kids. And while you pulled for a Final Four, part of you just wanted the misery to end.

There is perhaps no better metaphor for what Marshall meant to this team than the simple fact that a Kansas junk defense, a triangle-and-two, ultimately sank UNC’s Final Four hopes. No one would dare run a junk defense against Marshall, because that’s exactly what he would have made of it – junk. But without him, Carolina couldn’t score, reduced to watching helplessly as Kansas pulled away. But more than the loss itself, the enduring memory of the season might be a glum Kendall Marshall in a suit, flanked by his best defender and his best shooter, while his team – his team – fell apart on the floor.

We’ll always wonder what this team could have been had UNC not lost over 60% of its firepower. Injuries ravaged the most likeable Tar Heel team in recent memory, and turned a sleek, championship-bound bullet train into an antiquated rickshaw. We loved our team this year more than most, and not just because they won. So if it’s okay with y’all, I don’t want to remember this as a premature end. I’ll prefer to remember the steadiness of Tyler Zeller, the lanky frame of John “Blocktopus” Henson smirking about a block, and the obvious joy the starters showed when Blue Steel managed to score. I’ll remember Kendall Marshall finger-snapping on the bench after a 16-assist performance, and I’ll remember Dexter Strickland’s outlandish outfits. I’ll remember a sunset game on an aircraft carrier that stopped for the lowering of our nation’s colors, and I’ll remember the glee of watching the walk-ons outscore Duke on their Senior Night.

But most of all, I’ll remember how much this group deserved better.

About Nate

I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. I've written about the UNC-Duke rivalry since my best friend from high school took his talents to Durham the same year I went to Carolina. Astoundingly, we remain friends in part due to a moratorium on talking around Duke-Carolina games. Though capable of rationally approaching the rivalry, I generally prefer low-intellect vitriol, because it makes me feel better about myself. Visit my blog at http://thebestmedicineis.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to What Could Have Been

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  1. John T says:

    Nice piece man. Had fun with the ACC tournament running email chain we did. It’s a sad that my one distraction from Step 1 studying was derailed by injuries.

  2. DMoore says:

    Good post. It’s especially a shame for Tyler Zeller, who was finally getting his due as one of the best players in the country. But I’m still frustrated that the coaching staff couldn’t recognize, let alone adapt, to being beaten by a junk defense.

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