By Adam Lucas
Sorry in advance about the title to this column. Even six months later, it still stings, and likely will for as long as you’re a Carolina basketball fan. For our generation, 2016 is probably our 1977.
But the reality is practice began on Monday afternoon (photos are here) in Chapel Hill—NCAA permitted practice beginning on Friday, but Roy Williams was busy this weekend with his daughter’s wedding, so the Tar Heels hit the floor on Monday—and we’re going to hear a lot about Villanova in the days and months to come. Early season highlights will feature the Wildcats. As soon as media availability begins, the Tar Heels will be asked if they’re over the national championship game, and what it means for the 2016-17 season, and any number of questions that include the word “Villanova.”
And although six of the eight Tar Heels who played more than two minutes in the title game are back, as a group they might have the least insight of anyone into the game. That’s because of those six individuals, only Joel Berry II admits to watching extensive film of that Monday night in Houston. And even Berry admits, “I didn’t watch it to the end. I couldn’t watch that part. I watched it up to Marcus’ shot and then I cut it off.”
The player who drew the worst possible assignment might have been—poor guy—Nate Britt. The Carolina guard watched portions of the game with his brother, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins. “We watched some of it together,” Britt said. “We looked at a play where I was guarding him and denied him and he couldn’t get the ball, and a play when he was guarding me and I tried to score on him and missed the shot.”
Losing the national title game is going to be part of the Carolina storyline for at least the early part of the season, and will likely be brought up again as March approaches. The players, for now, don’t seem to mind. Playing in the biggest game of their lives is still part of their everyday activities. Britt and Theo Pinson had a recent conversation about the dozens of Tar Heel basketball alumni who made the trip to Houston for the game, each marveling at what a unique fraternity they have joined. Justin Jackson admits he still stews about a missed layup at the end of the first half and missed free throws in the second half. The 2017 team has renamed their group chat to one simple word: “Redemption.”
Even their head coach will talk about it. When the Tar Heels finished a particularly grueling conditioning session two weeks ago, Williams gathered his team and spoke, for the first time as a group, about the painful loss.
“Ask the guys who got in the game,” he told the Tar Heels, some of whom are freshmen and watched the game on television. “If they had it to do over again, they’d find a way to play even harder. We were that close,” and here he held his fingers an inch apart, “to winning the national title. When you’re playing in those big-time games, it’s all about doing the little things.”
The game is over. Now the question is how the program learns from it.
The 2017 Tar Heels began practice today with something almost no one else in the country has—first-hand experience of exactly what it takes to play into April. While other teams are in a constant cycle of reloading and look starkly different from year to year, the fact that Williams runs his program as a true program, building on one year to the next, could be beneficial.
There are tangible examples of past Carolina teams using precisely that type of disappointment as fuel for the next year. The best example in the Williams era is the 2009 team, which used a rout against Kansas in the 2008 Final Four as incentive for a title run. It was Bobby Frasor in the Detroit locker room at the 2009 Final Four who told his teammates, “Remember how last year felt. We don’t want to feel that way again.”
The outcome of last year’s final game was a disappointment. But the knowledge of what it takes to get that far could be useful both in October as the team prepares for what they hope will be a long year, and in March when they’re back in elimination games.
“As much of a disappointment as that was, all the hard work we did to get there is something we remember,” said Isaiah Hicks. “It’s accomplishment to be in the final two out of 300-something teams. Of course we wanted to win. But we have to learn from it. We have to figure out what we did wrong and what we can do to fix it. That last shot is the motivation. We have to get there again. We need another chance.”