ST. LOUIS — During quiet nights over the next several months, or even while he attempts to find refuge on a golf course, North Carolina coach Roy Williams will undoubtedly look back on the season his team completed Sunday and wonder how it might have been different had fate been kinder.
The Tar Heels quest to win a national championship ended three victories short, with an 80-67 defeat against Kansas in the NCAA tournament Midwest Region final.
But what if Kendall Marshall, the injured sophomore point guard, had been healthy enough to play Sunday?
What if Dexter Strickland hadnt suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Jan. 19 victory at Virginia Tech? Or if Leslie McDonald hadnt been lost months before the start of the season to a similar injury? Or if John Henson, who played Sunday with an injured wrist and a sprained ankle, had been fully healthy?
Those are some of the questions that will haunt Williams, who said Sunday that, yes, he will wonder what if? After a defeat that wasnt all that surprising given Marshalls absence, another question emerged, too: What will be the legacy of a team that won 32 games and the ACC regular-season championship, before falling short of its ultimate goal?
We did win 30-plus games, senior forward Tyler Zeller said Sunday, responding to that exact question. I mean, hopefully its a good (legacy). Its something that we had a lot of great players, we just came up a little short tonight.
That is, perhaps, a fitting way to describe the 2011-12 Tar Heels, three of whom Zeller, Harrison Barnes and John Henson earned first-team All-ACC honors. North Carolinas talent and potential were never doubted not after the Tar Heels returned several All-America candidates and all five starters from a season ago.
Even so, this was a team that eventually created its own doubts whether they were the result of injuries and bad luck or the byproduct of puzzling performances, none more so than that 90-57 defeat at Florida State on Jan. 14 that called into question North Carolinas viability as a national championship contender.
Williams, who completed his ninth season as coach, often said during the past several months that he appreciated the Tar Heels resiliency.
He appreciated how they responded to losing McDonald in the summer, and how they responded to losing Strickland and how they responded to the historic 33-point loss at Florida State that is the most lopsided defeat of his tenure at North Carolina.
But the team Williams coached for the final time Sunday night isnt the one he thought hed have weeks ago, months ago or even a year ago. Three players who began the season in the starting lineup missed games because of injuries and the Tar Heels best perimeter shooter McDonald never played at all.
This team, I looked two days ago, Ohio, the top nine guys played, they had one guy miss one game, Williams said, referring to North Carolinas opponent in the regional semifinals. Kansas, the top eight guys had one guy miss one game. Last four years, we have had more adversity than Ive ever seen in my entire life. But, boy, Ive had great kids.
In a quiet, subdued locker room Sunday night, players admitted, like Williams, that it would be difficult not to wonder what could have been.
The Tar Heels played as a complete a game as they had all season in an 87-73 victory against Creighton in the third round of the NCAA tournament last week.
Then North Carolina returned to its locker room and learned that Marshall had suffered a broken bone in his right wrist.
You try not to think about that, because you cant use it as excuses, freshman James Michael McAdoo said of the injuries. You know, stuff like that happens in life. But, of course youre going to think about it because youre a human being.
Ive just got that picture of Kendall falling in my head, just over and over just thinking about that.
McAdoo, who led North Carolina with 15 points in the defeat against Kansas, began the season as a timid player who seemed uncomfortable amid all the hype and expectations that surrounded him. During the past month, though, he became one of the Tar Heels most valuable and dependable players.
He, too, along with Barnes, Marshall and Henson must decide whether to remain at North Carolina or pursue a professional career. Henson, a junior, said Sunday he had no timetable in which hed make his decision. Barnes and Marshall, both sophomores, said they hadnt thought that far ahead.
Regardless, McAdoo said the defeat Sunday hurt most because he looked around the locker room and saw a collection of players whod never be together again.
Tylers gone, McAdoo said of Zeller. Justin (Watts is) gone. The three walk-ons are gone.
The Tar Heels began the season as the No. 1 team in the nation, and as a clear favorite to win the national championship. North Carolina began seasons amid similar expectations in 2007 and 08, and the Tar Heels reached the Final Four in both seasons, and won the 2009 national championship.
This team, though, became the schools first since 1993-94 to begin a season ranked No. 1 and end it short of the national semifinals.
The injuries took their toll. And Barnes, whod been so clutch in other moments in his two seasons at North Carolina, went cold at the worst possible time. He missed 22 of 30 shots from the field in two games at the Edward Jones Dome.
Even the most unlikely of North Carolinas success stories, Stilman White, was in no mood for positives after the journey ended prematurely. Filling in for Marshall at point guard, White, a freshman who had played sparingly in the regular season, had 13 assists and no turnovers in two starts.
I dont care, White said, fighting back tears. My only job was to win, and get to the Final Four. And we didnt accomplish it.