It’s time to Break It Down!
It took 364 days, more than 100 practices, and 40 games, but this past Monday night, when the University of North Carolina Men’s Basketball Team emerged from the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, they emerged with a record of 33-7, and having been crowned the 2017 NCAA National Champions. A year ago, on the Wednesday following the first Monday in April, the annual day of the Men’s National Final, I published a post entitled, “One For The Ages: Hail To The Cats” (https://thesphinxofcharlotte.com/2016/04/06/one-for-the-ages-hail-to-the-cats/). At that I summarized what was one of the most dramatic and exhilarating, while simultaneously crushing and dispiriting (depending upon for which team one was rooting), abrupt endings in the history of NCAA Basketball Title Games.
As the title suggests, the Cats (Villanova) won (and my beloved Tar Heels left, having had the chance to chase victory in overtime unceremoniously snatched away in the very last second, literally. For Tar Heel hoops fans everywhere it was perhaps the most sudden and devastating of losses. To make matters extraordinarily worse, the coup de grace was this dreadful termination was executed on the biggest of all stages in the sport. It is a game whose results are validated, with great fanfare by a poignantly edited video accompaniment of Luther Vandross singing One Shining Moment. The best players in college basketball routinely dream of hearing that song, punctuated by a sea of confetti, falling on both the victors and the vanquished.
The story has been dispersed widely by now. The CliffNotes summation is, over the summer, in preparation for the coming season, the Tar Heels adopted “Redemption” as the season’s overarching theme. In doing so, they dedicated themselves to returning to the Final Four and winning the prize they were denied in such an abrupt and disheartening manner during the 2016 Title Game. By approximately 11:35 EDT Monday night, the Heels had accomplished their mission.
To be clear, under no scenario is UNC equated with the Sisters of the Poor of college basketball. However, in the current era many of the most high profile Division-1 colleges and universities target and successfully recruit what are know as one-and-done prospects to augment their quest to attain a Title. The University of Kentucky, Duke University, and Kansas University are among the most successful at adhering to this strategy. Tt’s worth noting Carolina has not attracted a player who spent only one year in college since 2007, or a decade ago. In a sport such as basketball, in which only 5 players per team are permitted in the game at one time, and in a sport in which any and all players are subject to be disqualified as a result of drawing 5 fouls, or two technical fouls, a one-and done-player or two…or more can go a long way in elevating a team’s prospects of “winning it all.”
This year for instance, Duke had several players projected to be one-and–done, as well as a host of McDonald’s All-Americans (10 in all). They were expected to win the Atlantic Coast Conference (the Conference in which Carolina plays), and they were the odds on favorite to win the National Title. During the course of the Regular Season and Conference Tournament, duke did defeat the Tar Heels twice, splitting a pair of games during the season (both teams won on their home court), and besting the Heels during the ACC Tournament.
As it turns out, that was as good as it would get for the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels finished two games ahead of the field in the ACC; duke was seeded 5th. As a result, when the seeding was announced for the NCAA Tournament, a single elimination competition composed of 68 teams from conferences all across the country, Carolina earned one of 4 Number 1 seeds, while Duke garnered a 2 seed. The Blue Devils won once, losing their second game during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile Carolina went on to win twice the first weekend, then repeated that feat again the second weekend, then three-peated it during the third weekend, securing the National Title in the process, two nights ago.
In all, Carolina played and won 6 games to win the Championship. During the opening weekend they beat Texas Southern 103-64, the largest margin in the 2017 Tournament. Their Road To The Final Four ultimately included the following:
- Defeated Texas Southern University 103-64
- Defeated University of Arkansas 72-65 (Scored the last 12 points)
- Defeated Butler 92-80
- Defeated Kentucky 75-73 (Scored winner with .3 of a second left)
- Defeated Oregon 77-76 (Didn’t score a basket in the last 3 minutes)
- Defeated Gonzaga 71-65 (Scored the last 8 points)
In the aftermath, it must be said, an instant classic the Title Game was not. It was however an epic battle between two evenly matched teams armed with a bevy of traditional post players. Some called it a battle of the Titans. The big men inside, on both sides, for the most part spent the evening steeped in foul trouble. As a result, guys on the perimeter became the central players and playmakers. Often as not, the focus leaned more to playmaking than shot making. The Heels shot only 14.8% from behind the 3-point line, the lowest percentage by any winning team in the 2017 Tournament, They went four-for-27 and Joel Berry made all four. The Tar Heels were out-rebounded, and shot a lower 3-point percentage, The Heels did shoot a higher percentage overall, though only an anemic 35.6%. Carolina also had more steals, more assists, more blocks, and fewer turnovers.
By most of the media accounts that I’ve seen, the referees were the stars of the game. Most folks with whom I have spoken that are not Tar Heel partisans seem to think that hurt the Zags more than the Heels. I don’t claim to be unbiased on the subject, but I do know there were 44 fouls called and 22 of them were on the Heels, including 4 each on post players Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, and 3 on Luke Maye, with another 3 on Joel Berry who led the Heels and the game in scoring, and who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Unless you are partial to alternative facts, that is not a function of the team I happen to follow and for which I root, but simply a matter of basic arithmetic. Half the fouls called were on North Carolina.
On a macro level the Title Game was big for the North Carolina program, and for its coach Roy Williams. This year’s Final Four run marked North Carolina’s 20th trip (most ever), and Coach Williams’. (fourth most ever). The win was Carolina’s 6th (third most), and Coach Williams’ 3rd (tied for fourth), half of Carolina’s total, and one more than his mentor, Dean Smith, who won twice. On an individual level, the young men who play the game, especially those who played in the 2016 Final Four in Houston, are the real story. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are seniors and, as such, have played their last game for Carolina. In all probability, so has Justin Jackson, who elevated his game immensely, earning ACC Player of the Year, and 1st Team All-America honors. There is also a good chance that Joel Berry, who has said he will test the NBA waters, may not return.
Those stories will play out however they do over the next several weeks. Every young man on this team has acquitted himself well, and been a fine representative of the Tar Heel Nation. There is one more however, that I am compelled to mention. In the post on this topic a year ago, I zeroed in on Nate Britt. He is the adopted brother of Kris Jenkins, the young man from Villanova who hit the shot heard around the basketball universe, sending the Tar Heels home broken-hearted, and in tears. This year, ‘Nova was eliminated early, so Jenkins followed Britt after his own team lost. He could be seen behind the Tar Heel bench in the last several games, including Monday night. Last year I wrote the following about these two guys:
“So basically, for the rest of their natural lives, Kris and his brother Nate, both juniors in their respective programs, will have the 2016 Title Game as a shared experience…and Kris’ shot as a reminder of one’s transcendent sports moment and the other’s hoops nadir.”
As a result of a collective indomitable team spirit, a great deal of talent, skill, and ability, along with a healthy dose of good old fashioned luck, the Tar Heels not only returned to the Final Four, they won the Title, grabbing the proverbial brass ring. That embellishes the program’s hoops bona fides, elevates Coach Williams’ stock as someone who actually has a clue about what he’s doing on the court, gave this team “One Shining Moment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfPBQyQkUKI), and finally, it provides Nate Britt with a Championship Trophy and Ring. Now he’ll have his own bling to point to when he and Kris are chilling and reflecting back at the crib.
In conclusion, this years’ Title game will not be memorable for an abundance of graceful plays and athletic moves. What it will forever connote is “Redemption – Carolina Style: An Ugly Win…Is Still A Win!”
I’m done; holla back!
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