Now that the dust has settled from the season ending Tar Heels 80-67 defeat at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks on Sunday, it's easy to reflect and wonder what could have been.
On Sunday, with point guard Kendall Marshall not in the lineup again, the Tar Heels competed and competed hard. Freshman Stilman White left everything on the court with a scrappy effort and North Carolina had things rolling well in the first half.
But in the second half, Kansas changed their approach and defense and the Tar Heels struggled getting good shots off, particularly Harrison Barnes. Kansas inserted a triangle and two defense down the stretch and Carolina could not answer. This was a game of runs and the Tar Heels were unable to counter with one in the last several minutes of the game like they had during earlier stints.
The Tar Heels shot over 60 percent in the first half and had the tempo at an up and down pace but in the second, shot just over 22 percent and Kansas broke things open with a 12-0 run late.
Another surprising statistic was that the number one rebounding team was out rebounded by Kansas on the game 41-35. The Tar Heel bigs appeared to have issues possessing clean grasps of the ball in the paint and at times were pushed out towards jump shots, taking away their strength. Senior Tyler Zeller finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds while John Henson scored 10 points with 4 rebounds.
James Michael McAdoo showed glimpses of what his future may look like with 15 points and 4 rebounds while playing solid defense particularly on the perimeter where he caused problems in the first half with steals and break away dunks.
Stilman White played well in his two NCAA Tournament starts in place of Kendall Marshall. He tallied 13 assists and 0 turnovers in those games. But in the second half, it has glaring how the Tar Heels missed Marshall. Kansas changed their defense and White was left with open jump shots that he did not look comfortable taking. As a team, North Carolina had one of those nights from threes, going 2-17 from behind the arch. Marshall had stepped his scoring up in the last month of the season, particularly from the perimeter. It would have been much more difficult for the Jayhawks to play that defense with him in the game which would have made things much easier for players like Barnes who could not get an open look in the second half. He finished the game with 13 points on 5-13 shooting.
Tyshawn Taylor came out of his slump scoring 22 points, leading 5 Jayhawks in double figure scoring. Kansas will move on the play Ohio State in the Final Four.
The solid career of Tyler Zeller comes to an end and what should be an interesting off season again for North Carolina begins. The status of players such as Barnes, Henson and Marshall in terms of the NBA draft will be determined.
Is this season a failure? Clearly, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Zeller came back to school with the goal of winning a National Championship. This team was built for that with the interior dominance, exceptional point guard play and All-American candidate, Harrison Barnes who has the ability to bail his team out when an offensive set breaks down or the clock is winding down in a tight game. But nobody saw the adversity that this team faced coming to light.
It started in the offseason when Leslie McDonald went down with a knee injury. Carolina went into the season without McDonald and one of their best perimeter shooters.
In midseason, Dexter Strickland injured his knee and was done for the year. Strickland was the best perimeter defender on the team and a guy who pushed the ball up and down the court helping to set the Roy Williams style tempo. There is no question that the Tar Heel defense would have been a notch better had Strickland stayed healthy.
Then as the the season winded down, you had the two big wrist injuries just as Carolina was hitting their stride ending with the ACC Regular Season Championship. John Henson missed games in the ACC Tournament and never really appeared to be as comfortable catching the basketball after the injury and of course, the devastating injury to Kendall Marshall. Marshall set team and ACC records with assists this season and goes down during the NCAA Tournament. That was a tough one to overcome.
Given everything this team went through, this could be one of Roy Williams greatest coaching jobs. Having to count on a short bench, developing McAdoo and Hairston, and finding ways to get minutes from Stilman White and Justin Watts strategically and be one game away from the Final Four, he deserves some credit.
The Tar Heels won the ACC Regular Season and finished the season at 32-6. At North Carolina, they expect to compete in and win National Championships so if you want to argue that the season was a failure, you will likely get little resistance from the players because that is the mentality you have when you play basketball at Carolina. But realistically, given the circumstances, it was another successful chapter by Carolina basketball in my mind. Just not quite where they hoped to finish. But programs like UNC bounce back quickly and you can be certain that they will be in the conversation as a team who can cut down the nets again, sooner rather than later.