All the North Carolina players talked about how much the team improved over the course of the season, how it rebounded from a spate of early losses to make the NCAA tournament, how the Tar Heels learned to play together.
The Tar Heels got exponentially better. They just never got quite good enough to beat Duke or Miami or Kansas.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Those are good teams. And if James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston come back, North Carolina might well be in that group next year.
Amid all the disappointment Sunday, over the end of the season and the way Kansas ran roughshod over the Tar Heels in the second half on its way to a 70-58 win, there was a moderating sense of satisfaction that they even got this far, to the round of 32, and optimism for how far they might get next season.
“This isn’t the goal, a second-round or third-round exit,” North Carolina freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “We’re here to win championships. This hopefully should fuel that fire, but I like our chances next year.”
The Tar Heels actually had chances to pull the upset Sunday, tearing apart Kansas at the defensive end in the first half to take an 11-point lead, but were unable to hit any of their shots, either. That lead could have, and probably should have, been a lot bigger than it was.
It needed to be. All the fault lines cracked open under pressure from Kansas, pulled along by a loud, partisan crowd. A team that would live and die by the 3-pointer died by it, more through an inability to take them than an inability to make them. A team that had no inside presence of its own was stonewalled by 7-foot Kansas center Jeff Withey.
That has the potential to change next season, with Dexter Strickland the only scholarship senior. If McAdoo comes back, and Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson continue to develop, and highly rated incoming freshmen forwards Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks can contribute, that inside presence might be a strength for North Carolina next season instead of a weakness.
McAdoo is never going to be a back-to-the-basket scorer, but his jump-shooting ability makes him a tough matchup. What the Tar Heels need is one of those young players to emerge as a post player capable of crashing and banging with someone like Withey.
James has the body for it, but is still so raw. Hubert is capable defensively, but can get lost on offense (as he did during a brief cameo Sunday). Hicks and Meeks are two of the top forwards in the country, but you never know how that transition to college is going to go.
If there’s improvement there, so many other pieces are in place. Bullock and Hairston seem likely to return, and that would give North Carolina two elite shooters. Paige’s improvement over the course of the season was dramatic, and the next step for him is to break down defenses with his ability to penetrate. North Carolina coach Roy Williams has often said Paige is just scratching the surface as a scorer.
“We have a chance to be a sensational basketball team again,” Williams acknowledged, “but that’s not going to help me get through the spring.”