The UNC Tar Heels Conundrum: Restrained Joy in the Southern Part of Heaven

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
The UNC Tar Heels Conundrum: Restrained Joy in the Southern Part of Heaven
(Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

In March, they fall one by one, like wisping blooms from the budding dogwoods.

Elites and nobles depart from the affair without being able to grasp the hand of the beautiful girl they came to dance with. Louisville and Pittsburgh, stellar seasons in hand, are forced to the doors before they are ready.

Cinderella's stagecoach prematurely transforms back into a pumpkin. Arizona, some said you never should have been here, but you looked beautiful in your dress, even if midnight came too soon.

Teams that are on fire find themselves doused by a sudden torrent of disappointment. Syracuse and Gonzaga, your seasons were a success nonetheless, and you and your fans should be proud.

The knights who served as reigning champions and their No. 1 challengers proved powerful once again, but have been vanquished this time around. The young warriors of Kansas and Memphis will hardly be gone for long, though.

No one ever fully knows how the story, or in some cases the fairy tale, will play out, no matter what they tell you. There is no such thing as a perfect bracket.

Precisely because it is such a challenging, emotionally draining and rewarding task to even reach the "Final Four," it is probable that some teams (subconsciously or not) consider such success to be a destination, rather than one more step on an even more pressing journey.

How then, does one explain the rather subdued joy of the North Carolina Tar Heel players and fan base?

Some say it's arrogance, but that is inaccurate. UNC players (and fans) are certainly not "better people" than anyone else simply because of the names on either the front or the back of the team's jerseys.

Neither the players nor the fans feel entitled to tournament wins or Final Four appearances, and they never, ever take it for granted.

The restraint can be summed up in one word that hardened men such as Matt Doherty, Tubby Smith, and Billy Gillispie know all too well: expectations.

Ty Lawson says he never felt the pressure of early expectations that swelled around this team, the first-ever unanimous AP No. 1 preseason selection. That swell crashed like a tsunami on Chapel Hill when the Tar Heels opened conference play with losses to Boston College at home and Wake Forest on the road.

Lawson and others can say what they want, but I don't believe him for a minute.

Suddenly, the media darlings, the "anointed ones," could be taken down a peg or two. Fans had written endlessly of the possibilities of the first undefeated season since 1976, and many thought that it was about time they were humbled.

This is why you don't see dancing on the tables or showboating when Carolina wins.

This is why the UNC players simply shake the opponents' hands, wave to the crowd, smile (bigger on the inside than the outside, I assure you), and walk quietly back to the locker room.

It's also why I've seen Franklin Street quite subdued, even last night, and it's why you don't have a plethora of vapid postings (thank goodness) touting the Tar Heels. There is still far too much work to do, and it only gets harder with each step of the way.

The wins are merely what is "expected" for a great number of people, and the fans know that there are many waiting in the wings to crow and taunt if UNC takes the same hard fall that brought it down in 2008.

The Tar Heels still have painfully overt lapses, such as the one that allowed a battered Oklahoma team to cut a 21-point lead to 12 in a matter of just a couple minutes, late in the second half.

The pressure is tremendous when nothing short of a championship is acceptable to the media, the fans, and the players alike. Roy Williams on Sunday called this "the most frustrating season of [his] career."

Yes, many schools would love to have such pressure and "frustration," but it is not condescension that allows Williams to say something like that. It's just that one double-edged word again: expectations.

UNC is not a better team this year because it has been to the Final Four nine times in 19 seasons. Phil Ford, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Sean May aren't playing. Frank McGuire and Dean Smith aren't coaching.

The Tar Heels know that if they take even one game, one half, or perhaps even one minute for granted, the fairytale season ends in disappointment. They are not destined to be champions; they will have to earn it, just as they have the rest of their accomplishments so far.

No amount of history or media prognostication will win them a championship. Only teamwork, efficiency, focus, and effort will get the job done.

Their fans understand this too and have taken the same pragmatic, business-like approach that the players have. It's not that they would label their beloved Tar Heels as "losers" if it didn't all work out. But they do know that much of the rest of the country is watching and waiting for them to fail.

So, the fans will be happy and gracious for the team's successes, but most in Chapel Hill will be waiting to exhale until (and if) the ultimate celebration can begin.

Until then, the peril of being just another March dogwood bloom is all too real.

Load More Stories

Follow UNC Basketball from B/R on Facebook

Follow UNC Basketball from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

UNC Basketball

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.