By Adam Lucas
LAS VEGAS—This story starts with a very simple premise, and let’s be up front about it so you can move on if you’re not interested:
You can hate Saturday’s 103-100 loss to Kentucky. You can fume about late-game mistakes or defensive breakdowns or timeouts.
But as we stand here on Dec. 17, you have to love this team.
Hate the game. Of course. You just watched Malik Monk score 47 points on 18-of-28 shooting and an absurd 8-of-12 from the three-point line. Carolina tried man-to-man, Carolina tried zone, Carolina tried everything short of tackling him--a tactic the Wildcats used on occasion--and nothing worked.
But love the team. Kenny Williams will eventually be one of those lockdown defenders who flummoxes opposing scorers. But Saturday—without the benefit of Theo Pinson to spell him—was a learning experience. Only once in Carolina history has a player scored more than Monk’s 47 points. That was Duke’s Dick Groat in 1952; the Tar Heels lost that game by 30 points. Somehow, in this one, they played evenly through 39 minutes and had the lead with 45 seconds remaining. The storyline will be that Monk scored 47. Alternate storyline: Monk scored 47, and Kentucky needed every single one of them to beat Carolina.
Hate the game. You should. Kentucky continually exploited the Tar Heels with a high screen, then used their athleticism to turn the advantage into a variety of high-flying dunks, floaters, and kick-outs for three-pointers. That’s an area where Carolina had been good early in the year, but they’ll need to improve against opponents with the athleticism of the Wildcats (and there aren’t many of those opponents).
But love the team. You need to be completely honest right now: when Luke Maye was in the game in key minutes of the second half, what did you say? Really, what did you say? And all he did was score a career-high 11 points, all of them in the second half, including nailing two straight three-pointers. And when he was done scoring, all he did was tip out a missed Justin Jackson free throw to preserve a Tar Heel possession in what looked like—it really looked like—might be the game-saving play. Two hours after the game, Luke Maye is still trending nationwide on Twitter.
Hate the game. Carolina was beaten on the backboards 39-35, including a 15-10 deficit on the offensive glass. On one key second-half possession, Kentucky held the ball for a full 71 seconds, missing three field goals and a pair of free throws before getting one point on their one minute and 11 second possession on a Bam Adebayo free throw.
But love the team. Because somehow, despite the 47 points and the 71 second possession and the howling pack of traveling Kentucky lunatics and the technical foul and the foul trouble and being down seven with five minutes to play, it was a tie game with a minute left. Other Carolina teams--other good Carolina teams--lose this game by a dozen points. This game was one possession from being one of the top three regular season wins in the Williams era.
Hate the game. If Carolina wins this game, we’re talking about Justin Jackson’s 34 point performance as one of the greatest offensive displays in the Williams era. He needed just 17 shots to do it, aggressively went to the rim (taking 15 free throws) and was effortlessly smooth while doing it. But no one will remember it, because this was the Malik Monk 47 Point Game, and Jackson will be an afterthought, like another certain game in April that could have had a very different storyline.
But love the team. With six minutes left and Carolina down six, Jackson had a good look at a three-pointer. Two-possession game, six minutes left…every other 30-point scorer in the world takes that shot. But Jackson saw Isaiah Hicks with an even better look, and fed him for one of his three assists. And then after the game, all Jackson wanted to talk about was his five missed free throws (“That’s five points,” he said. “We could’ve won the game. That’s on me.”).
You can hate the game because the opponent was Kentucky and being in the same building with them reminds you of exactly how differently things work in Lexington. John Calipari arrived at his postgame press conference with his tie off, top two buttons on his shirt unbuttoned, and having changed into blue jeans. There are not two top-level programs in America right now that arrive at the end result off the court more differently than Carolina and Kentucky.
But you have to love the team precisely because despite how differently the programs run, there’s Carolina right there with the Wildcats. We’ve gotten to see Jackson turn from a cautious freshman into an aggressive junior. One of the beautiful things about this world is that everyone likes something different. Mark me down as someone who likes watching players learn, and mature, and get better, and connect—with a team, a program, and a university.
And of course, you want them to win, too. But this is December. It was hard to walk out of T-Mobile Arena not feeling that these two teams might see each other again this season. “It’s a game of basketball,” Williams said. “You learn and live and hope you live while you’re still learning and at the end be able to do something about it.”
On Saturday, Carolina learned. Nearly four months remain to love the team...and, based on Saturday's effort, they're going to do something about it.