KANSAS CITY — Amid defeat, there was hope. North Carolinas season ended Sunday night with a 70-58 loss against Kansas, yet coach Roy Williams looked into the future and liked what he saw.
We had an unbelievably young team, and they tried and tried and tried, Williams said after his 10th season as Tar Heels coach ended with a loss against the team he coached for 15 seasons. Weve got a chance to be a sensational basketball team again.
After 36 games, though, North Carolinas season ended as it began surrounded by questions about the future, and uncertainty. In November, those questions focused on how the Tar Heels would adapt after their four best players went to the NBA.
Now the most glaring question again is which players will leave school early, if any. Dexter Strickland, the only scholarship senior, played in his 128th and final game Sunday night.
It remains to be seen whether the same could be said for junior guard Reggie Bullock, sophomore guard P.J. Hairston and sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo.
They were North Carolinas three leading scorers, and all three averaged about 14 points. None gave an indication about their plans.
I havent really thought about it, said Hairston, who led the Tar Heels with 15 points Sunday while he struggled through a 6-for-17 shooting performance. I dont plan on thinking about it any time soon.
Asked how he might handle his decision-making process, McAdoo said, Its just something I want to talk to coach Roy about first.
He didnt provide a timetable for that discussion.
Players rarely disclose their future plans in the moments after a season-ending loss. Before departing North Carolina a season ago, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall gave similarly nondescript answers after losing to Kansas.
Im just worried about this loss right now, with my teammates, Bullock said. Im not really worried about my future right now, even if it is a future. But Im just worried about spending this time with my teammates. We battled a lot this year. We went through a lot of adversity.
That was a season-long theme. The Tar Heels (25-11) suffered a confidence-sapping loss against Butler in the Maui Invitational, where they trailed by 28 points before a late rally made the 11-point defeat seem more respectable.
There were ugly, disappointing losses at No. 1 Indiana in late November, and at Texas in December and then, in January, an 0-2 start in ACC play. The Tar Heels won six of their next seven games after that, but they suffered through more humiliation during an 87-61 loss at Miami on Feb.9.
Change of direction
It was there in Coral Gables, Fla., inside a somber locker room, where North Carolina began to change its season.
During a discussion with his assistant coaches, Williams, who has long held a traditional inside-out offensive philosophy, embraced the idea of using a four-guard starting lineup.
Hairston showed up to practice two days later and saw his name listed along with the other starters. North Carolina debuted its smaller lineup during a 73-68 loss at Duke, where some in the student section serenaded the Tar Heels with chants of NIT in the final moments. It was fair to wonder then about whether they would make the NCAA tournament.
No one thought we would make it in the ACC tournament, no one thought we would make the championship game, Hairston said. Everybody thought we would be an NIT team, not even make the NCAA tournament. So we proved people wrong just by that.
Im proud of my team, because everyone played their hardest and tried their best every game.
After the lineup change, North Carolina won nine of its final 12 games. The Tar Heels ability to shoot gave them a chance to win any game, but their inability to shoot well Sunday was the deciding factor in their final loss.
As Williams has acknowledged many times, the expectations are different at North Carolina. The Tar Heels have never been measured by how hard they play or by how much they try.
They are measured by championships and milestones and victories. North Carolina won 25 games for the 34th time in school history. Yet for just the sixth time in its previous 30 NCAA tournament appearances, it failed to advance to a regional semifinal.
Under Williams, the Tar Heels hadnt failed to reach the Sweet 16 since 2006. Still, while they emptied their lockers as the sounds of cheering Kansas players seeped through the walls, there was a sense of accomplishment. Williams had told his players how far theyd come.
He was just basically saying how much the season meant to him how much we grew as a team, Strickland said.
How many will return?
Strickland has seen four teammates leave early for the NBA. There was Ed Davis in 2010, and Barnes, Henson and Marshall a season ago. It was difficult for him to predict, then, what the Tar Heels might look like in October.
I think theyre going to be good, Strickland said. Depends who stays. If Reggie, P.J. and all these guys McAdoo stay, I think theyll be pretty good.
A three-man recruiting class, led by heralded in-state prospects Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, is ranked 11th nationally by ESPN. The Tar Heels are also still in the running for Andrew Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 forward who is considered the top prospect in the nation.
Players responsible for nearly 90 percent of the scoring and 94 percent of the rebounding are eligible to return. How reliant the Tar Heels will be on freshmen will be based on who stays.
For one last time they were all together again, sitting in the same locker room after a game. Hairston said hed miss this teams chemistry, and McAdoo said hed miss the brotherhood.
It hurts, McAdoo said. We had an opportunity to win the (ACC) championship last week. Had an opportunity to really shock the world (against Kansas). I think we definitely came a long way.
Coach Roy was tough on us. The whole coaching staff was tough on us. We took our lumps. And it hurt. But this team definitely came together and we did what we could do at the end.
Williams hurt Sunday but anticipated better days. In the moment, that didnt help.
We have a chance to be a sensational basketball team again, he said. But thats not going to help me get through the spring.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter