Tar Heels blue thinking about what might have been
I generally live my life following the advice of world-famous country singing group Little Texas …
Sure, I occasionally think back to the 1994 NCAA Tournament and wonder if things would have turned out differently had Danya Abrams not knocked Derrick Phelps out of the game just minutes into the second half. Would ninth seeded Boston College still have been able to upset the Tar Heels? Maybe. Maybe not. “There’s no way to know.”
Yes, there are times when I think back to the 2012 season and curse the name of Creighton and Ethan Wragge. And after I’m done doing that, I question whether that Elite Eight matchup with Kansas would have gone differently had Kendall Marshall played the 28 minutes that Stilman White played in his place as Marshall sat sidelined with a broken wrist. But “we can’t go back again.”
I’m too young to remember it, but I’m plenty old enough to have heard an adequate number of stories to make me wonder how the 1984 season would have played out if Kenny Smith hadn’t broken his wrist. The crazy part of that saga is that Kenny Smith actually played in the season-ending loss to Indiana, but fans unanimously agree that the Tar Heels were not the same team after his return from injury that they were before he went down. Did that wrist injury cost Carolina a title? Possibly. “But it’s been a long, long time.”
So by the time next basketball season rolls around, I’ll probably feel the same way about North Carolina’s Friday night Sweet Sixteen loss to Auburn. I’ll have buried it so deep a therapist will spend years trying to bring it back to the surface to help explain why other areas of my life have serious issues. The moment someone says “Auburn” I won’t immediately spend the rest of the day wondering if a healthy Carolina team was actually the better team.
The mere mention of Chuma Okeke won’t cause me to flash back to Cam Johnson puking in the locker room after playing the game two or three steps slow due to flu-like symptoms. But, at this very moment, that’s exactly where I am.
I’m wishing the Heels had gotten to play Friday night’s contest at full strength. I’m wishing March wasn’t so cruel. And I’m wondering if a completely healthy lineup would have been enough to squeak past a hot Auburn squad.
When the news broke earlier in the week that Nassir Little was sick, you had to feel like he probably had time to rest and be recovered enough to play by Friday. Even if not full strength, he could probably pop a few Tylenol just before tip-off and, who knows, maybe have his own version of “the flu game.”
What the Heels couldn’t afford was for other members of the team to pick up the bug. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
At one point in the second half, Brandon Robinson looked like the best Carolina player on the court. No offense to B-Rob, but that’s not something you want to be typing about an NCAA Tournament game in 2019. Maybe in 2020. But in 2019, with Cam Johnson and Nassir Little as teammates, you’d prefer him to be “solid role player Brandon Robinson” instead.
I think the thing that will help Carolina fans eventually forget (let’s be honest, we’ll never forget, but you know what I mean) the fact that the basketball team wasn’t operating at 100% is that even if they had been, I’m still not convinced the Heels would have been able to overcome Auburn’s 17 made 3-pointers. It’s probably fair to question whether the Tigers would have made 17 3-pointers against a healthy lineup, but the way they were shooting Friday evening, it’s not unreasonable to think they would have. As is so often the case, they got hot at the right time. And they also managed to catch the Heels at exactly the wrong time (for Carolina).
But much like Duke playing without Zion, flu or no flu there is no asterisk beside this game in the record books. When we look back on the end of the 2019 season five years from now, we’ll simply see a blowout loss against Auburn in the Sweet 16.
And we’ll just have to leave it in the past. And try not to think about what might have been.