No sadness, no anger, but UNC basketball awash in resignation at the inevitable end

As Puff Johnson talked, his bag was visible in his locker behind him, an orange tag that said “Team Bus” with last year’s Final Four logo still attached. Reminders of where this North Carolina team came from, and the expectations both placed upon it and brought upon itself were never all that far away, right to the extremely bitter end.

What was once a source of pride — the athletic department even put out a photo recreating the famous 1982 Sports Illustrated cover with Dean Smith — became a burden this group proved strangely unequipped to carry. Nothing ever came as easily as it should, and certainly not Thursday, as the reality of unfulfilled promise came crashing down upon them.

“We definitely had a lot of expectations coming into the year and it hurts to see the result we just had today,” Johnson said. “It happened this whole season. When you fall down, you just have to get back up.”

The Tar Heels came within a shot or two of a national title last year, secured a pair of historic wins over Duke and they all came back for more, Armando Bacot and Caleb Love and R.J. Davis, losing Brady Manek but adding a sought-after transfer in Pete Nance. They had talent, they had momentum, they had swagger. As it turns out, they also had baggage they were unequipped to carry.

On Thursday night, in a very quiet locker room inside the Greensboro Coliseum, they were finally forced to confront their ultimate failure, the most disappointing team in the modern era of college basketball. Not since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985 had a preseason No. 1 failed to make the NCAA tournament — three others, including N.C. State in 1975, failed to make much smaller fields — until Sunday when this team will get the inevitable bad news.

Nance transferred from Northwestern to chase a national title. The Wildcats will be in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina will not.

The mood in the wake of the 68-59 loss to Virginia was not one of anger, or sadness, but entirely of resignation. Maybe even, at this point, relief. These North Carolina players may never be able to identify why this team was so much less than the sum of its parts, but there will be no shortage of factors to consider in the postmortem.

Too many players who needed the ball in their hands is the simplest diagnosis, but there was also the questions of whether the Tar Heels were motivated to come back to win or to collect NIL money, whether they thought they could just show up and win, whether there were too many hangers-on to drag around along with the emotional weight already on their shoulders.

“I’m talking to more than 18 guys in the locker room,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I’m talking to roughly 35 to 40 people, and so yes, there’s at times the noise, whether it’s from the phone, the family, the friends, the fans, the agents, the workout guys. I think at times it really hurt us.”

Either way, it’s not like Thursday’s loss snuck up on the Tar Heels. They had known for some time what a loss would mean. Perhaps that gave them too much freedom to contemplate the implications, not just on this night, and not just this week, but for months now.

They were never able to pick up where they left off against Kansas. Everything was a struggle. Nothing came as easily as it should have. Even Thursday, they had to play the final 10 minutes of the game without Bacot after he pulled himself from the lineup, unable to perform on the ankle he injured Wednesday night.

The longer the Tar Heels went without looking like the team they were last March — as every potential turning of a corner turned out to be a cul de sac instead — the more what they did last March seemed to weigh upon them. They knew they weren’t what they were supposed to be, their frustration apparent in both body language and actual language. At this point, accepting an NIT bid would be tantamount to masochism.

“We can nitpick on a lot of things, but at the end of the day we just didn’t make plays,” Leaky Black said. “We didn’t play together the whole year. It is what it is. We didn’t win games we needed to win. We can nitpick a lot of things. Nobody’s perfect.”

When Davis maintained, after a late-season loss to N.C. State, that “I don’t think time is running out on our season,” it was hard to believe he actually believed it. Everyone knew it was. It ran out long before Thursday.

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