Do November hoops really matter?

A few notes about Sunday’s column:

I started writing this column as the Heels were tipping off early Saturday morning against Old Dominion, which, basically coincided with them being behind in the opening 14 minutes or so.

As much as I’ve tried to make myself believe that these games really don’t mean a whole lot, and that rooting for Tar Heels basketball must be akin to being a New York Yankees fan — meaning that any season with anything less than a Final Four or a championship is deemed a failure — I found, over the course of writing this column, that the games really do still get the juices flowing and the butterflies fluttering. All of them do. Even now, when in the great span of things, they mean very little.

Truly, will much of anyone remember N.C. State falling to New Orleans if the Wolfpack win the ACC championship? Would it really make a difference in the kind of seed the Pack would get in the NCAA tournament? Probably not, and definitely not if the Pack enjoy a good season.

Look, for a fringe team, early-season losses obviously mean more than they do to the top-tier teams. But UNC losing to ODU or BYU wouldn’t mean much other than a small tumble in the top 25 rankings. So why do we still get so worked up about them?

Good question. One that I couldn’t answer in writing a column about it. But I did realize that I was lying to myself when I was trying to believe the games don’t matter much. My head says one thing, but my heart says something different entirely.

Here’s the column:

March 1994.

High school. Senior year.

Two cars, several buddies driving back from a road trip somewhere.

Some details escape me, others are as fresh as though they were made yesterday.

Two cars on an unseasonably warm March day. Both parked, both running, both with the air conditioning cranked up. A Burger King parking lot, but nobody moving an inch.

The radio. Supreme focus on the radio and on that voice. Woody Durham.

The North Carolina Tar Heels. The Boston College Eagles.

March. Carolina. The Madness. The Dance.

Woody is describing the scene. The teams are emerging from their huddles after the timeout. The Heels trail. They have possession. But it’s the last possession and it’s only the second round.

Derrick Phelps is gone. Taken out by a hard foul earlier in the game. That’s when the doom seemed to settle in.

This would be it. One chance. One shot. One hope.

It’s a 3-pointer from the corner, falling away, Woody tells us — and it was shot by Rasheed Wallace, years before Wallace shooting 3s in the NBA would become commonplace.

And that was it. A miss. A season, done.

And there they were. Our so-called friends.

Jumping from the other car, two of our buddies, the Duke fans, erupting into full-on elation. Thrilled that their hated Heels were gone, gone from the tournament, gone from their lives for one more season, gone from a chance to win a second straight NCAA championship.

The Carolina fans slithered from the other car, slumped into line at the King, and ordered lunch that none of us really wanted to eat.

Two carloads of teenage kids, but a quiet, tense lunch. Few words were spoken. The Heels fans in stunned silence. The Duke fans, smirking, but smart enough to know they were outnumbered for the moment.
After a few moments, one of us tossed his half-eaten lunch into the trash can and headed back to his car. Slamming the door shut, he cranked it up, blasted the AC and … just sat there.

Had he not been a senior in high school mere months away from matriculating to the university he loved, he would’ve cried. Cried like Nancy Kerrigan. The pain, the anger, while laughable maybe, was still real. And the joy from that sprang from the other car? It was real, too.

But that’s March. That’s when it’s all on the line, when it’s all or nothing. Falling short of a national title for your team, something that in reality is actually kind of rare and should never be a thing that is expected, is crushing.

For some, the real diehards, it is like that for every game. It was like that for the one rocking in his chair and biting his nails when the top-ranked Tar Heels opened the season with a, well, a nail-biter against Davidson. It was like that when Duke was playing down to the wire this week against Marquette, thousands of miles away, in Maui. Carolina fans hoping for a loss, Duke fans begging for anything but.

And it was like that again for the tortured souls who stayed up well past midnight to follow the Heels in Las Vegas against Old Dominion. North Carolina, still ranked No. 1, trailed Old Dominion by six points — six points! — three-quarters of the way through the first half.

You grow up with this stuff, passed down from one generation to the next, and this is what happens. You worry to death over how tall and athletic 20-year-old kids play basketball in November.

What happens is that your pride gets in the way, and fans of programs like North Carolina and Duke fail to realize that November losses mean as little as New York Yankees’ losses in April.

What’s the big deal, really? What does it all come down to? OK, so maybe your team will win the ACC regular season championship or the tournament championship. And the regular season matchups between the heated rivals are serious bragging points. These aren’t small things, to be sure — not to us anyway, the ones who say “we” when referring to our favorite teams.

But what would a loss to Old Dominion in the middle of the night on the other side of the country really mean? What would five more losses over the course of the season mean? A No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, instead of a No. 1?

Is that all?

Is that really it?

You can still win the national championship from there.

And that’s what matters. To us, that’s what determines success.

Not how you — err, they play in November, or December, or for that matter, much of January.


That’s when the heat is on, when the blood is boiling and when the AC is pumping in a Burger King parking lot.

Not now.

But is sure feels that way.


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Filed under Duke Blue Devils, N.C. State Wolfpack, Sports columns, UNC Tar Heels

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