Nine months ago at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, Joel Berry II led North Carolina to a national title on a pair of bad ankles. The heroics of the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four helped Roy Williams capture his third national championship.
At Florida State on Wednesday night, however, Berry’s 28 points couldn’t help the Tar Heels survive on the road.
“We’ve got to get some other guys to step up,” Roy Williams told reporters after his team’s 81-80 defeat. “If [Berry is] going to be able to do that and make shots -- make a lot of them -- then everybody else has to make sure they help him defensively because he’s working awfully hard on both ends. I’ve never minded a guy making a lot of points as long as he’s getting some help, but we need to give him more balance here.”
North Carolina’s loss signaled a change from a year ago -- not just for UNC, but for every team that participated in last season’s Final Four.
If the first two months of the season portend the results of the final three, then the 2018 national semifinals will not resemble 2017's diverse bunch.
In the 2017-18 campaign, Gonzaga and South Carolina reached the first Final Four in their respective program’s history. Oregon hadn’t participated in the national semifinals since before World War II. And North Carolina had returned to the Final Four anxious to avenge a 2016 loss to Villanova in the title game on a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater.
It’s all different now.
After losing star Sindarius Thornwell to graduation, South Carolina registered a loss to Illinois State (No. 165 in ESPN’s BPI) and squeezed past Coastal Carolina in a two-point home victory Dec. 9.
Gonzaga will, per the norm, battle Saint Mary’s for the West Coast Conference title. The Bulldogs finished first in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, but they’re not the same defensive power they were a year ago with Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski in the paint.
Oregon lost four starters from its Final Four team. But Dana Altman added a talented pair of guards, New Mexico transfer Elijah Brown and five-star freshman Troy Brown, this season. But the Ducks are an average offensive team at this point in the season, one that put up only 56 points in a home loss to Utah last week.
And any comparisons between this season’s version of the Tar Heels and last season's crew are imprudent. Yeah, they were led by Berry, too. But those offensive-rebound-gobbling Tar Heels thrived off second-chance opportunities.
They did not shoot well last season. Still, they dictated the action with their length and talent around the rim, which they lack this season.
In a strong ACC, North Carolina might not be among the top four teams. Virginia, Duke, Florida State and Miami are all arguably better right now. But UNC is still a good team with second-weekend potential. Gonzaga -- sitting at 12-3 like the Tar Heels -- is, too.
South Carolina (9-5) must fight, however, to earn NIT consideration. Perhaps Oregon (11-4) will join the Gamecocks.
The foursome gave us a collection of fun narratives during the Final Four last season. South Carolina was the football school that proved it could also excel on the hardwood with a magical run to Arizona last year. Mark Few finally shook off the last batch of haters with Gonzaga’s first run to the national title game. Oregon came within one Jordan Bell rebound of advancing to face the Bulldogs.
But North Carolina won that game and put the Villanova loss behind it with another national title for Williams.
College basketball’s achievements don’t last long, though. And the early struggles of the four teams that finished the season on top prove as much.