CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- They’ve had to make up for the lottery picks that weren’t on their roster.
They’ve fielded questions over the integrity of their teammates.
They’ve answered questions over the substance of their academic work.
As has been the case this season, the Tar Heels turned a potential blowout into a close game. This time they let a 13-point lead dissipate into a one-possession game before emerging with a 75-70 win over Syracuse on Monday.
The Tar Heels are positioned to earn at least a share of the ACC regular-season title. They only have to do something that the senior class has never done before -- win at rival Duke.
“Because all the bad stuff that’s been happening you want to be able to have something that will cover it up and put it in the past for everybody,” Johnson said. “We can still get there [to a Final Four] even though we have had some ups and downs, a lot of issues the past few years. It would really mean a lot because we want to be able to bring back that tradition here of winning championships.”
They haven’t made a major contribution to the many banners that hang from the Dean E. Smith Center rafters. Last season’s Sweet 16 appearance is the only sign of their presence in Chapel Hill.
Those banners serve as both a reminder of the tradition and as judgment of the standard of expectations. They represent the one way they know they can make up for the disappointments from the past three seasons.
“Starting with the ACC title and then going into postseason play has a chance to really put icing on an interesting cake these last four years,” Paige said. “I don’t think there’s any question about how up and down these four years have been, both on the court and off. To make a deep run and to have something to be extremely proud about basketball-wise will definitely put the cherry on top of an experience that was really unlike any other.”
As freshmen, the trio joined a roster depleted by the loss of four first-round picks in Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall. They had to play right away, and it didn’t matter that they weren’t equipped to contribute immediately. It was especially tough for Paige, who expected to learn behind Marshall but was thrust into the starting lineup instead.
As sophomores, they began the season wondering when upperclassmen P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald would return from suspension for receiving impermissible benefits. Only McDonald made it back to the lineup, and that season ended without getting past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, same as the previous one.
As juniors, the Wainstein report dropped before the season, detailing the involvement of athletics and rules violations from nearly two decades of fraudulent paper classes, which shook the university as a whole. Although none of the current players were involved, it brought a new round of questions over how men's basketball might be punished and caused the three now-seniors to ponder if they would even be allowed in the postseason.
“If you asked me as a freshman would I have to go through all this stuff, I never would have thought that would happen,” Paige said. “But it’s been a great four years despite all that.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said preparing for Syracuse was one of the most stressful regular-season games he has ever had because he wanted that group to win its final home game.
It’s because of the adversity that Williams said that “this may be my favorite team of all time” while addressing the Smith Center crowd from half court after the game.
“These guys have made me be able to live because I feel like we’ve been stuck out on an island by ourselves,” he said.
With the start of March, they’ll have one more journey to pursue. Carolina has its flaws, the biggest appearing to be a penchant for letting opponents stay close in games when sizable leads should have put them away.
It’s why the Tar Heels lost double-digit leads in losses at Northern Iowa and Notre Dame. It’s why they allowed Duke to rally from down eight to win 74-73. That pattern nearly repeated itself against the Orange, too.
Despite all that, Paige believes in this volatile season of college basketball, the Tar Heels have “as good a shot as any.”
“You’ve got eight to 10 teams that have stayed in the top 10 for the majority of the season that are capable of making a deep run and I think when we’re at our best, I think we’re the best of that group,” Paige said. “If we can find our stride and get things together going and get some momentum on Saturday going into the ACC tournament I don’t see why we can’t win it all.”