UNC Basketball: The Tar Heels stink, and that’s okay.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after his players turned the ball over against the UCLA Bruins during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Tar Heels defeated the Bruins 74-64. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 21: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after his players turned the ball over against the UCLA Bruins during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Tar Heels defeated the Bruins 74-64. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

The UNC basketball program has seen better days, but Tar Heel fans need not despair.

North Carolina basketball fans are understandably discouraged about the seemingly disastrous season that their Tar Heels are in the midst of. It’s ugly, sure, but it’s not the end of the world, despite what some would have you believe.

Their 8-8 start and four consecutive conference losses have been difficult to endure; for the coaches, the players and the fans. For a program and its following that’s so used to widespread success, even a Sweet 16 loss to hot-shooting Auburn in 2019 was considered a letdown.

Fast forward less than a year. A pair of talented freshmen in Coby White and Nassir Little have moved on to the NBA, and the senior trio of Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson have all graduated. That’s a lot to lose while still hoping to compete at a high level in college basketball’s best league, and with one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules.

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The addition of two 5-star freshmen — Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot — along with a pair of highly touted graduate transfers had North Carolina fans confident that a good season was not only possible, but probable. There was little doubt that a three-time national title-winning coach with the pedigree of Roy Williams wouldn’t be able to pull this hodge podge group together to win 25 games, and play on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps we all overestimated the potential impact of one sure-fire first round draft pick on a group of players that have largely never played together, and their Hall-of-Fame head coach to find a way to make it all work. And it wasn’t just the people in Chapel Hill who bet on the wrong horse this season. The Associated Press tabbed the Tar Heels as a top-10 team to start the season, and they weren’t the only ones.

Now, just two month into the season, the Tar Heels’ 2019-20 campaign is all but over. Barring a miracle, they’d have to win the ACC Tournament to get into the NCAA’s, and that’s no exaggeration. Even an invite to the NIT Tournament seems like a long shot at this point; not that anyone wants that anyway. So, now the sky is falling, and the UNC faithful are collectively imploding. We’ve come full circle, as the chants of “fire Roy” have already begun to surface again. But are things really that bad?

Yes, the Tar Heels are experiencing their worst season since 2010. That season, one widely remembered for being the worst of Roy Williams’ 17-year tenure at North Carolina, marks the only time that his program hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since his return to Chapel Hill in 2003. Just a year after winning his second national championship, Williams lost what could easily be considered the best group of players he’s ever had. Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington departed, making way for a group of players that lacked both the experience and star-power necessary to compete at the highest level.

Since then, though, things haven’t been all that bad. The Tar Heels had back-to-back second round losses in 2013 and 2014, but they’ve still never won less than 24 games in a season over the past decade. They’ve finished first in the ACC three times in the last four seasons, and nine times in 15 years. They’ve been to the Final Four five times in that span, made four national championship game appearances and won three titles. They’ve enjoyed a dozen 25-win seasons, and seven 30-win seasons. Never mind the fact that they’ve been one of the best programs in the sport for better than 50 years. So, again I ask, how bad can it really be?

Still, though, North Carolina coaches, players, alumni and fans, alike, all expect the program to stay at the top tier of college basketball without so much as a hitch. It’s really an unreasonable expectation, but it’s the way of the world we live in; at least for college basketball’s blue bloods.

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And speaking of blue bloods, many North Carolina fans would make the argument that Duke, Kansas and Kentucky never have “down years”, but let’s examine that notion a little closer. First of all, take note of the three programs that are mentioned, and a pair of programs that are not; namely, Indiana and UCLA. The Hoosiers and Bruins are unquestionably two of college basketball’s best programs historically, so why aren’t they mentioned here?

Well, the Hoosiers have had a losing record on four occasions since 2004, and they’ve won the Big 10 regular season title just twice in 15 seasons. They’ve missed the NCAA Tournament nine times during that span, made it past the tourney’s opening weekend just three times and don’t have a single Final Four appearance since 2002. And as good as Indiana ranks in the annals of college basketball, the school hasn’t won an NCAA title since 1987 when Bob Knight was still the head coach.

UCLA, on the other hand, has more NCAA titles that any program in the history of college basketball; 11 to be exact. But of those 11 titles, just one has come since 1975, and that was nearly 25 years ago. The 10 prior were during an 11-year span in which legendary head coach John Wooden dominated the sport with players like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. Over the past 15 seasons, the Bruins have had a losing record three times, and missed the NCAA Tournament on five occasions. They’ve finished atop the standings in the fledgling Pac-12 just four times during that span, but they do have a trio of Final Fours that they can boast thanks to a three-year stretch with players like Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

Regardless of their past accomplishments, though, both Indiana and UCLA have been written off in the college basketball blue blood conversation. Neither are mentioned when we discuss the Mount Rushmore of college hoops. And neither program is compared to Duke, Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina anymore. They’re both allowed to be bad since they’ve been virtual dumpster fires over the past handful of decades — at least for a pair of programs that were once expected to be at the top of the pack in their sport.

The same can’t be said for Duke, Kansas and Kentucky, of course, as all three programs have seen a tremendous amount of success, and with a level of consistency matched by few, if any. But none of the three programs, however, have had a spotless record throughout their respective illustrious histories, past or present.

Outside of a couple of seasons under Harold Bradley in the 1950s, and a handful of seasons under Vic Bubas in the 1960s, Duke was a fairly average program for several decades until the arrival of Mike Krzyzewski in 1980. And even recently, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils have a less than pristine record when it comes to ACC regular season play and the NCAA Tournament. They’ve finished Atlantic Coast Conference play with the best record just three times over the past 15 years, and they’ve failed to make the NCAA Tourney’s second weekend on five occasions during that span. And on three occasions, the Blue Devils got upset by a much lower seed in the first round. They do, however, boast plenty of success in the ACC Tournament, and have two national titles in the last 10 years. And their five national championships over the past three decades are nothing to sneeze at. Equally as impressive is the fact that the Blue Devils haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1995.

The Kansas Jayhawks have been really good, and really consistent. There’s no denying that. But even with their stretch of 14 straight Big 12 titles from 2005 to 2018, and their 30 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, the Jayhawks have captured just one national title in the last 31 seasons. And if we’re being honest, they’re just one colossal Memphis Tigers meltdown away from having zero titles since 1988. Maybe, I’m nitpicking here, but I don’t think I am. The ultimate goal, after all, is winning national titles. It might be hard to convince the people of Lawrence, Kansas that, though, as many have actually told me that the team’s previous streak of conference titles was more important to them that winning a national championship. But that’s asinine, and no half-way reasonable individual would even try to rationalize such a notion. The Jayhawks have been good, yes, but their record isn’t perfect by any means.

The Kentucky Wildcats have been really good for a long time, but even they went through the latter Tubby Smith years and the two-year Billy Gillispie disaster in the mid-2000s. That stretch of four years saw the Wildcats lose in the first round once, the round of 32 twice and miss the NCAA Tournament altogether in 2009. Not only that, but the Wildcats missed the tournament again in 2013 under the direction of Hall-of-Fame head coach John Calipari. And while they did capture four Final Four appearances from 2011 to 2015, those are their only trips to the national semifinal in the past 21 seasons. Likewise, the Wildcats’ 2012 national title is their only one since 1998. Considering the amount of talent that Calipari has had on his roster over the past 10 seasons — 30 NBA draft picks since the 2010 season — one would think that his teams would have compiled more than one national championship in his storied tenure with the program.

I understand that North Carolina fans expect the program to remain a top-10 team forever, and compete for national titles on a near-yearly basis. It’s just not reasonable, though, and we all know it. None of the aforementioned programs are legitimately battling for a national title on a consistent basis, either, and they know it, too.

North Carolina fans can take solace in the fact that the basketball program hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons since 2002-03. They should also be confident that the Tar Heels’ incoming freshman class ranks third in the nation, and boasts three 5-star players that should come in and make an immediate impact next season. North Carolina will also likely return a senior Garrison Brooks, a sophomore Armando Bacot, and a pair of talented guards in Jeremiah Francis and Anthony Harris. Rest assured, there are brighter days on the horizon for the UNC basketball program.

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For now, though, the Tar Heels stink. And that’s okay.