UNC Beat: Novembers Past

I’ll give sports fans this, they are never dull.  This is especially true for the fans on the losing side of a contest.  North Carolina’s 82-71 loss to Butler brought two strong reactions to my Twitter timeline: “That was an incredible comeback and I love this team even if they didn’t quite pull it off” and “HOLY COW THIS TEAM IS AWFUL.”

I’m going to politely ask both sides to step away from their respective ledges.  I’ve always found the “good loss” philosophy fascinating.  Fans have a strange way of rationalizing losses for their team by calling them “learning experiences” or “wake-up calls,” but God forbid their rival lose and present the opportunity to point out that team’s flaws. Only your team learns from losses. All the other teams just wallow in self-loathing when they lose.

With that said, there’s no reason to bail on this Tar Heels squad just yet. Hopefully, North Carolina’s trouncing of Chaminade to secure a third-place finish in this year’s Maui Invitational alleviated some concerns … but it’s doubtful, because it’s Chaminade.  So, let’s take a peek at Novembers past for some perspective and rationale.

North Carolina teams under Roy Williams have nine November losses. Eight of the nine have come in either early-season tournaments on neutral floors or road games as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That’s not terribly surprising: Most of your other November games are against the likes of Lipscomb, Florida International, and UNC-Asheville.  However, I feel like the fact that it happens almost annually is often forgotten by the folks who overreact to a single Tar Heel loss in Maui.

The first of these losses is probably the one North Carolina fans recall most vividly: An opening-season 77-66 loss to Santa Clara in the 2004 Pete Newell Challenge. In that game, the Tar Heels, preseason favorites for a national title, started freshman point guard Quentin Thomas in his home state while Raymond Felton served a one-game suspension for participating in a non-certified summer league.

The exception to the rule came the following season in a rematch of the 2005 National Championship, as Illinois and North Carolina met at the Smith Center.  Neither team was really anything like the squads that met in Missouri, but the teams played a close game that ended in a 68-64 Illini victory.

The other ACC/Big Ten Challenge loss under Roy Williams also came against Illinois, and it was part of a particularly challenging November for the Tar Heels in 2010.  That season, North Carolina finished November with a 4-3 record, thanks to losses in Puerto Rico to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, along with the Illinois loss.

All three of these seasons are observed fondly in hindsight by Tar Heel fans.  2004-05, for the obvious championship reasons; 2005-06, for being the bunch of unheralded freshmen who grew up to become the 2009 champions (and ruined J.J. Redick’s senior night that year); and 2010-11, for overcoming that awful November and eventually defeating Duke on North Carolina’s senior night to end the regular season atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.

Ultimately, it’s not about the speed bumps you hit in November, it’s how you respond to them.  The 2004-05 team responded to the Santa Clara loss by decimating its competition in Maui (getting that Felton guy back probably didn’t hurt matters).  Last year’s Tar Heels followed a 90-80 loss to UNLV in the Las Vegas Invitational with an ACC/Big Ten win over Wisconsin. Both the “4-3 in November” 2010-11 and the 2005-06 squads defeated Kentucky in the first game after their respective losses to Illinois.

SENIOR MOMENT: This Saturday, the Tar Heel football team will play its final game of the season at home against the Maryland Terrapins.  For the seniors, it will be their last time strapping on the helmet and putting on the North Carolina jersey.  For me, it will be the last time I watch a UNC football game as an undergraduate student.

Unfortunately, many students will probably be absent at Kenan Stadium (including myself), as they will be home celebrating Thanksgiving weekend with family or friends.  So, as inadequate as it may be, this space will have to serve as my giving of thanks to the seniors on this year’s team.

They’ve had plenty of reason to question their decisions to come to Chapel Hill years ago.  The coach that recruited them, Butch Davis, is now in Tampa Bay.  They’ve endured the NCAA investigation, the constant speculation, three different coaches, and, until just a month ago, never-ending questions about whether or not they could beat NC State.

Some were thrust into starting roles earlier than expected with the suspensions and holdouts that opened the 2010 season.  Others have had chances to contribute snatched away by injuries.  Others have paid their dues the hard way, joining the squad as walk-ons years ago and finally working their way onto the field when the opportunity presents itself.

Through all of this, fans and students have invested themselves into these players.  Showing up at games, yelling at televisions, reading news reports in dismay.  After four years, it can almost feel like you know these guys, even if you have never come closer to meeting them than an exchanged glance during the Old Well Walk.

Long after the students who cheered on these Tar Heels for four years graduate, they will remember the highs and lows.  Some of those will be personal, but some of those will be about football. I probably won’t remember my room number in Cobb Hall five years from now.  I’ve already forgotten the name of the professor of my first class.

However, I will remember the friends I’ve met, the deep, enlightening conversations I’ve had, and the moments that gave me goosebumps.  And I will also remember where I was when Butch Davis was fired, the awkwardness of riding a shuttle full of Tennessee fans from LP Field to a parking lot following the 2010 Music City Bowl, and the noises that rattled amongst the pines when these seniors finally got that win against the Wolfpack.

So, Casey Barth, Travis Bond, Jheranie Boyd, Josh Bridges, Jonathan Cooper, Adam Curry, Dion Guy, Erik Highsmith, Peyton Jenest, Pete Mangum, Jordan Marsh, Kenny Owens, Devon Ramsay, Kevin Reddick, Gene Robinson, Brennan Williams, and Sylvester Williams: Thank you.

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans is a student at the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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