North Carolina finds itself in the same position it has been in each of the past two years, the same place in the NCAA tournament and with the same stakes: win and advance to a regional semifinal, lose and go back to Chapel Hill, wondering what if.
Two years ago UNC's season ended at this point with a loss against Kansas and last year Iowa State sent the Tar Heels home. Now, with a victory against Arkansas on Saturday UNC would make travel plans for Los Angeles and the NCAA tournament West Region.
“It's the hurdle that we have to get over,” Marcus Paige, the junior guard, said Friday. “And it's very important and it's arguably the biggest game of our careers – most of the guys on the team to this point.”
Paige said it was the biggest game for “most” of his teammates because only UNC's oldest players know what it's like to advance past the first weekend. Reserve forward Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert, another reserve forward who suffered a season-ending knee injury, are seniors who were freshmen in 2012 on the last UNC team to reach a regional.
Stilman White, a sophomore guard who spent two years on a Mormon mission, was also a freshman on that team, which lost to Kansas in a regional final, one game from the Final Four. Now the Tar Heels are trying to get back to that point.
“We want to get to that point,” Paige said. “We haven't had a taste of that.”
After the Tar Heels lost against Kansas two years ago in the round of 32, there was disappointment but not a sense of surprise. UNC that year was a No. 8 seed, and it faced a formidable task against the top-seeded Jayhawks, who played in front of a favorable crowd in Kansas City.
A year ago, though, the Tar Heels took it hard when they lost against Iowa State. They'd been so close and had played so well – they thought – and the margin between a season-ending defeat and a victory that would sent them to New York City was so thin.
“I still think about it,” Paige said. “And I don't want it to happen so reminding yourself of that feeling is a good way to motivate yourself to play harder. And I got tired a couple of times (on Thursday against Harvard) but you've got to remind yourself – you can't get tired.
“There's no time to be tired in the NCAA tournament.”
It hasn't been all that long since the Tar Heels played in a Sweet 16 game – three years – but that’s their the longest stretch under Williams. UNC lost in the round of 32 in his first season, in 2004, but won the national championship the next season.
UNC didn't make the tournament in 2010 but then lost in a regional final in each of the next seasons. Since then, though, the Tar Heels haven't made it past the first weekend. Williams on Friday said he asked his junior class if it had ever been to the a regional semifinal.
“And the answer was no,” he said, “and I knew that because I told them about it. But it's not just our exclusive right.”
He said he didn't tell his players that it's an accomplishment just to reach this point, anyway – and just to be in the tournament in the first place. But the expectations are different at UNC, because of the history, and the Tar Heels' relative “drought” – if it can be called such a thing – stands out because they so often went deeper into the tournament during Williams' earlier years.
But it has been awhile, still – a fact that isn't lost on Williams or his players. During summer pick-up games at the Smith Center, where former UNC players often convene for long workouts and games with the current players, Paige said he often hears about past accomplishments.
“I have to listen to guys all summer talk about their national championships and Final Fours, and how they won ACC championships and stuff like that,” he said. “We don't have a whole lot to bring to that table, in terms of saying anything.”
That sort of thing weighs on Paige and his teammates, he said.
“You don't want to be a team or a guy that (has been at) North Carolina as long as I've been here and not really have much postseason success to show for it,” he said. “I think about it a lot but at the same time I have to address it in the here and now and we have to get over one hurdle before we can get over the next.”
And so Arkansas represents that next hurdle – the one the Tar Heels have failed to overcome the past two years. Lose and UNC would experience the familiar – another disappointing return trip home.
For most players, though, victory would represent something new – a trip out west, to Los Angeles, and a chance to return home with something more to talk about during those long summer pick-up games with older players who have no shortage of stories about deep tournament runs.