Heels fall short of title aspirations
By Aaron Beard
North Carolina’s season started with expectations for a championship. It ended with a jarring thud — and a bunch of injured players sitting on the bench while the final minutes of the Tar Heels’ season ticked away.
After Sunday’s loss to Kansas in the NCAA tournament, coach Roy Williams said he would wonder “what if” for a long time.
“I know I love my team,” Williams said. “Man, they were fun to be around and they were facing a lot of adversity.”
The Tar Heels (32-6) were the preseason No. 1 with all five starters back — including NBA prospects Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller — from a group that won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship and got within a game of the Final Four. But the team was never at full strength.
First Leslie McDonald — the team’s top returning outside shooter — suffered an offseason knee injury that kept him out all year. Then starting guard Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury in January.
The Tar Heels survived those setbacks and even played through Henson’s sprained left wrist during the ACC tournament that kept him out three games. But Kendall Marshall suffered a broken right wrist in the NCAA tournament win against Creighton, an injury that ultimately doomed the Tar Heels.
With Marshall cheering on his teammates from the sideline in a suit, the Tar Heels were out of sync and couldn’t get the easy baskets that Marshall either scored or set up for teammates. They barely survived an overtime game against Ohio in the round of 16 before falling to Williams’ former Jayhawks program in the regional final.
When it was over, the Tar Heels had managed only to match last year’s accomplishments instead of taking a few steps more.
“It’s hard,” said Marshall, who participated in practice drills Saturday but wasn’t quite ready to return. “Our team has battled through so much. This was the time we were going to break through.
“To come up short, it’s tough.”
It was certainly a harsh ending for a team that looked ready to peak when it blew out Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium to clinch the ACC regular-season crown. Henson’s wrist injury happened in the first half of the following game. Marshall’s came four games after that.
At the end, North Carolina was starting third-string freshman point guard in Stilman White and relying on senior Justin Watts for bigger minutes after he had played mostly spot duty in his career. And Henson, already playing through wrist pain, injured an ankle against Kansas and never looked like himself.
Still, North Carolina reached a regional final and won at least 29 games for the sixth time in eight years.
“I may question why God put us in this situation, but at the same time, he has a reason for everything,” said Zeller, the ACC player of the year. “So you just got to accept it. … Maybe I’ll understand it later. Maybe I won’t. But you just got to go with it.”
It’s unclear how the Tar Heels will look next season. Zeller will graduate, and it’s possible Henson, Barnes and Marshall could decide to enter the NBA draft.
The Tar Heels should have Strickland and McDonald back, while sophomore Reggie Bullock thrived in the starting lineup after Strickland’s injury. Freshman James Michael McAdoo showed some promise late after a rough start to his college career, though fellow rookie P.J. Hairston struggled with his outside shot.
White will leave for a 2-year Mormon mission.
The Tar Heels will restock with a recruiting class of point guard Marcus Paige, wing forward J.P. Tokoto, power forward Brice Johnson and center Joel James.
Williams said he would likely begin having initial discussions about the NBA with his underclassmen later this week.
“I don’t think anyone’s thinking that far,” Barnes said. “We all had expectations of going to New Orleans and now that’s cut short.”