This was a game that, for one half, was painful for basketball fans to watch, and for another half, was painful for UNC fans to watch. Carolina sadly proved, in the end, that they were nothing more than what we thought they were: an above-average group that wasn't capable of beating superior teams.
That statement was painfully evident in the opening 15 minutes of the game, when Kansas came out completely flat and had fans everywhere wondering how a team that couldn't shoot, pass or dribble actually managed to get a 1-seed. But even as Carolina mounted a double-digit lead, they were playing horribly themselves (shooting 26% for the half and at one point missing 12 shots in a row) and couldn't put the Jayhawks into a bigger hole - that was ultimately the difference in this game. A better team would have been up by 20 on Kansas and put them into a much tougher situation. As it stood after the first half, KU only had to make some basic adjustments, calm down and play their game to make up the 9-point halftime deficit and beat the Heels.
And that's exactly what the second half felt like - a beating. Jeff Withy and his magnificent coif was as dominant on the offensive end as he had been defensively all game, Kansas' shots started falling from the outside, and KU's bigger lineup continued to eat UNC alive on the boards. The Jayhawks were +18 in the first SIX minutes of the second half. Once they retook the lead, you had a feeling they weren't going to give it up.
The game was also a display of why Kansas was a particularly difficult matchup for UNC: Withy was a mismatch inside who, when he wasn't blocking shots, was altering their trajectory and allowed other KU defenders to key on defending the 3-point line. Reggie Bullock finished just 1-7 and PJ Hairston shot 6-17; not the recipe for an upset when you're a perimeter-oriented team. Kansas is a really good defensive team (leading the country in opponents' FG%) and Carolina did nothing offensively to challenge KU - McAdoo had clearly been told to try and take it to Withy early on and maybe get him in foul trouble but you would have thought somewhere on the way to 5-19 he would have figured out it wasn't working. Dexter Strickland took his signature foot-just-inside-the-line jumpers and, in signature style, missed most of them. Carolina looked adrift and unable to make adjustments, which, unfortunately, was all too familiar.
For as much as UNC fans talked about a "hot streak" since smallball was implemented, Carolina's best performances were still in losses: to Duke in Cameron and to Miami in the ACC Tournament Final. One fellow UNC alum echoed my sentiments exactly when he wrote "No team has less 'it' than this year's iteration of Tar Heels." That's not to say we didn't like the players on this team, or we didn't enjoy and appreciate the growth over the season - you just never felt like the sum was bigger than the parts, or that Carolina was capable of playing over their heads and gutting out an improbable win somehow. Kansas proved that for UNC to beat a better team, they would have to depend on that team playing pretty poorly, which is a sad thing to have to pin your hopes on as a fan. Will is going to recap the season later this week, but for me one of the more disappointing things was for a second consecutive year not having a really memorable win to hang your hat on as a Carolina fan. What do we remember this year by? It'll probably be the year Carolina went small, but failed to ever come up big - Kansas was our last chance for that, and the Heels just couldn't make it happen.
Watching UNC chuck up threes for a while was fun and all, but I will welcome the return to a standard two-bigs lineup when it hopefully returns next year. Now we play the waiting game to see just who those bigs will actually be - Bullock, McAdoo and Hairston all have some very moderate buzz, but with all three back Carolina could be a serious title contender. Here's hoping 2014 finds UNC back in the second weekend of the tournament... and beyond.