Last night I stayed up until 1am watching my beloved Tar Heels play a scrappy basketball squad from Long Beach State. It was the first full game I had watched since Kansas ended our season back in March. And quite frankly up until about a few weeks ago, I was still in a college basketball coma induced by the heartbreak which was the 2011-2012 UNC Men’s basketball season. Actually while I was in Iowa, I spent one weekend in Council Bluffs which is just across the river from Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Unfortunately I did not have time during my brief stay to properly show the Blue Jays just how much I appreciated them ending our run for the National Championship. Also, when working on a political campaign, vandalizing a college campus, spouting obscenities and performing obscene gestures toward undergrads is generally frowned upon (unless you’re in South Carolina).
But, I digress. My point is a unique feeling came over me last night as I watched my young Tar Heels play into the wee hours of the morning. It was dare I say it . . . fun? My stomach wasn’t in knots. I didn’t find myself yelling, “You know better than to do that!” or “John Henson, for the love of God, hit a free throw”. Now granted, I love and miss dearly every member of last year’s team. But, as a fan there is a big difference between watching your team play when they are ranked #11 than when they are ranked #1. Last night was an enjoyable experience not only because our boys played like they were supposed to in the second half but also because there was no longer the proverbial bull’s eye on our backs. If we had lost, it would have been news but not front page news like it was when UNLV took us down last November. If we had lost, every Duke fan on Facebook wouldn’t have blown up my wall. If we had lost, we would have considered it a learning experience and one of the many that this young team will have to endure as they mature throughout the season. If we had lost, I would have been pissed but not hella pissed.
I don’t think I’m the only Tar Heel fan who knows that watching Carolina basketball games is not always an enjoyable experience. Last year’s Duke game in Chapel Hill is just one example. For me personally, Tar Heel basketball has been giving me ulcers for almost 32 years now. I’ve paced. I’ve bitten my fingernails. I’ve slapped the wall. I’ve gotten so angry that the dog felt the need to hide under the bed. I’m not proud of this. It is just part of being a Tar Heel basketball fan. It is a disease that sometimes has adverse side effects. Maybe it was because there were so many new faces in Carolina blue or perhaps it was the sight of Hubert Davis on the side lines, but last night watching Carolina basketball was fun. We won! It was awesome! PJ starting hitting his 3s at the right moment, and I am confident that Marcus Paige will only get better and better with every game. It was also great to see Strickland and McDonald on the court dressed in blue and not on the sidelines dressed in street clothes. I think the biggest reason it was fun was because the heat is off. Carolina isn’t picked to win the ACC let alone the National Championship this year. We don’t have any pre-season All-Americans or Naismith Player of the Year candidates. I’m not saying I’ve already given up on the Tar Heels cutting down the nets this year. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
The difference this year is that the rest of the country doesn’t expect us to win it all. So I say we enjoy the absence of the spotlight and the pressure that comes with being ranked pre-season number one. It’s not often that a UNC team can play basketball without having every play call and timeout scrutinized by every college basketball media outlet in the country. I think Roy Williams may enjoy coaching a little more this year because he will be doing what he does best: teaching and molding a diverse group of talents into one team. As a fan, I will enjoy the games a little bit more because I know the team is full of youth and still on the learning curve. So this year when we sweep both Duke and NC State, it’s going be a little sweeter because this year we will be the underdog. And after all the pressure that surrounded last year’s team, I think it’s kind of nice that the heat is finally off.