BLOOMINGTON-Here we were, on November 27, and Roy Williams was miserable again.
It might have felt a little familiar to him. He'd just watched Indiana dismantle his Tar Heels, 83-59, in boisterous Assembly Hall. The last time he'd felt like this on November 27 was ten years ago. On that evening, he watched a young, up-and-coming team play almost the perfect game against his squad. That youthful team relished the opportunity to measure itself against Williams's highly ranked group, and while it wasn't quite as resounding as Tuesday night's win, it was still a solid 67-56 victory over the Williams-coached Kansas Jayhawks.
I remember that game very well, and you do, too. Because on November 27, 2002, Carolina beat Kansas in New York. The win improved the Tar Heels to 4-0, and suddenly the roster had all sorts of shiny new toys like Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May, and they were playing so beautifully together, and they'd started the season unranked but were soon to rocket into the top 15, and, well, I was a little giddy.
On that night, maybe still dazed from too much turkey anticipation, I remember thinking something that now seems ludicrous: I thought, for just a moment, that maybe that game had been the intersection of two programs headed in opposite directions.
Come on, now. Don't act like it didn't cross your mind at least once. It was 2002. We were all still delirious after surviving the Y2K bug.
So what I learned that year--in addition to the fact that this whole iTunes thing might have some potential once it finally debuted--was that nothing momentous ever happens in November. Big games happen. Attractive television matchups happen. But absolutely nothing happens that will ever have any bearing on what occurs in March.
You know the best case scenario for the Tar Heels this year? It just might be that P.J. Hairston becomes so essential to this year's team, that if Carolina and Indiana met on a neutral floor in the NCAA Tournament in March, you could convince yourself that the game played way back on November 27 meant nothing, because Hairston didn't play. If Hairston has the kind of year that makes that ring true, there are going to be a lot of happy Tar Heels.
That's the only perspective that makes much sense after watching Carolina trail by more than two dozen points for the second time in three games. It wasn't especially disturbing that Indiana executed their gameplan better than the Tar Heels. No, what was so bothersome was that Indiana executed Carolina's gameplan better than the Tar Heels.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: Carolina would scratch and battle and eventually figure out a way to put the ball in the hoop after 20 seconds of pure agony.
Then the Hoosiers would zip down the floor and dunk it.
Seventeen of Indiana's 46 first-half points were scored within seven seconds of a Tar Heel shot or turnover.
"We didn't run back," said James Michael McAdoo, who finished 4-of-15. "That's the biggest thing. We have to sprint back. We pride ourselves on that."
Over the last couple years, I've been in a lot of gyms across America where eventually the fan behind me would have enough, and scream out, "Can't someone stay with Zeller?!?" It was always a little amusing. He would frustrate them simply by running, the most fundamental part of basketball.
I now have a new view on this particular phenomenon: it is not amusing. This is serious business. Really, can't someone stay with Zeller?
Indiana is ranked number-one, but you can tell they're still on the upward curve of getting back to that spot among the college basketball royalty. You could feel it in Assembly Hall. It's not routine to them yet. They're not bored with it. They sit on what appear to be very uncomfortable wooden seats, stacked 50 rows into the sky--to look at it from the inside, you would never imagine that Assembly Hall seats just 4,000 fewer people than the Smith Center--and they sing every word of the fight song.
You know how hungry they are at Indiana? The Hoosiers were up 30 in the second half of a game that started at 9:35 p.m. local time, and when you looked around the gym at 11:25 on a Tuesday night, there were hardly any empty seats. No one wanted to leave. They hadn't seen this in what felt like a long time, and they were going to sit there and soak in every second of it.
With 6:42 left and a 75-49 lead, the ball bounced towards the sideline, headed out of bounds. It was a completely meaningless play. So Cody Zeller, who would absolutely win a mayoral election in Bloomington against every other human in the world other than perhaps Bob Knight, threw himself on the floor, diving almost through the row of courtside chairs to try and secure the loose ball in a 26-point game.
"They were more aggressive," Williams said twice of the Hoosiers during his postgame press conference. It was the same thing he might have said about a young group of Tar Heels ten years ago on this very night. Now he has his team's attention and a month's worth of practices. November might not be momentous. But December could be--needs to be--instructive.
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.