There was a national title on the line for North Carolina on Monday, same as a year ago, and yet nothing was the same as a year ago.
Win or lose against Gonzaga, the mere fact that the Tar Heels were able to make it back to the national championship game was a significant accomplishment of its own. Only eight teams have lost the title one year and come back to play for it the next. It’s been 19 years since one of those teams actually won it.
That’s no small accomplishment.
This wasn’t easy, even if it looks like it now. Not only was this where the bar was set for this season – anything less than this would have been perceived, internally and externally, as failure, whether that’s fair or not – but the Tar Heels were thinking about this the entire time.
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Every game. Every day.
All that one-game-at-a-time talk? It was only true to an extent. This mission loomed over everything. It never left their minds.
“Now that we’re here, I can finally say it’s been hard to just focus on every game and not look ahead,” North Carolina’s Theo Pinson said.
By Monday, there was nothing left ahead. Only this game. Only one last chance at a second chance.
So North Carolina played for the national title for the 11th time, and Roy Williams for the sixth time, and the fourth at North Carolina, and the result mattered, it certainly did, with the opportunity to hang a sixth NCAA banner in the Smith Center, but by the same token, it didn’t.
The odds against making it back to this point were astronomical, and the Tar Heels could have stumbled at any point along the way. At times – against Arkansas, against Kentucky, especially right down to the end against Oregon – it seemed like they were even trying to shake off this destiny, only to regroup and continue to march forward toward it.
It’s worth appreciating that. One way or another, this very special group’s time is coming to an end. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt will graduate. Justin Jackson is likely to leave for the NBA, and perhaps Joel Berry as well. The Tar Heels have largely dodged the transfer epidemic that has overtaken college basketball, at least since the departures of Larry Drew II and the Wear twins, but there’s no guarantee that continues.
Even without that coveted title, it’s a group that won 10 NCAA tournament games in two years, regrouped after its stars and leaders – Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson – departed and developed an uncommon degree of chemistry in today’s transient basketball world. Unlike the 2011-2012 teams, which came and went in a flash without even making a Final Four (although Kendall Marshall’s injury had something, if not everything, to do with that), this team left a distinct mark on North Carolina basketball, even if it doesn’t hang that particular banner. It will have a cherished place in the program’s history regardless.
“I know last year has been on my mind a lot and I don’t want that same outcome, but we have to focus on what’s going on right now and not worry about last year,” Joel Berry said. “We can’t change that.”
Even with a loss to Gonzaga, North Carolina did what it wanted to do 363 days ago. It made it back. And with a win, the Tar Heels (and Williams) will claim a special place in history.
Regardless of what happens Monday, making it back is a triumph – not merely of basketball but of will.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock