It’s been a rough couple of years for the Tar Heels. It’s hard to say when the decline started, but it was probably the NCAA’s announcement of a formal investigation into Carolina athletics. It lasted a while, and while no official hammer ever dropped, the prospect of a toothless, heavily-sanctioned team precipitated the transfers of multiple players, at least a few of whom are now playing in the WNBA. Compound that with a brutal rash of injury luck, and you have nonexistent depth and less talent than you’d like at any position. Certainly there were highs sandwiched into the overall lackluster. The Duke OT win in January of 2018. Knocking off Notre Dame and ending NC State’s unbeaten streak in Reynolds last season. Ultimately, the state of the program was not quite where anyone wanted it to be. The whole thing obviously came to a head with Sylvia Hatchell’s abrupt and ugly departure.
Hatchell was Carolina women’s basketball. A Hall-Of-Famer, 1,000+ game winner, and national champion. Her career is summed up in the banners hanging in Carmichael. We will likely never know exactly what went down with her resignation. I loved Coach. I think every fan of this team did. But then all of that happened. Where Hatchell’s departure, and its alleged causes are concerned, I just want to say this: talking about women’s college basketball means talking about young women (already a marginalized group in society), who are a majority African American (double down on the marginalization), female athletes (add a massive factorial of bias they have to deal with), and people beholden to the hulking edifice of the NCAA. (Cap it all off with way more neglect and marginalization.) You are talking about a population with virtually zero power or agency staring into the face of a million reasons to keep their heads down and just play ball. If they raise their voices to tell you some bad sh*t went down, you should believe them.
And maybe all of that bled into all of the other problems and created something worse. And then some necessary changes happened. And then we’re here.
The season is young so far, but new head coach Courtney Banghart has things tilted in a different direction.
The first thing you notice is the joy. This team just feels like they love playing with and for each other. You can see it in three or four other players rushing over to pick up a teammate who hit the deck. You can see collective self-reinforcement and a we’ll get it next time comportment after a play didn’t quite work, as opposed to heads hanging low and glowering expressions. Somewhere, somehow, something in the ethos has shifted. There is a lightness to this team, a certain weightless jubilation, and it’s really quite something to see.
The vibe is good, but there are also notable tactical alterations. Banghart’s offense zips the ball around, relying on cuts and spacing. It’s not surprising for anyone who watched her brilliant Princeton teams, but it does make for a different dynamic than the dribble handoffs that initiated much of the offense previously. The operation is not perfect right now. The veterans on the team are adjusting to the new scheme, and the freshman are still figuring out how to play at this level, period. But it’s a start. One that has produced beautiful results so far, small sample size and non-ACC competition level aside.
On the other end of the floor, the defense is flying around. They are disciplined and tight and playing with fury. Five pairs of bent knees and arms spread out to cut off passing lanes on every possession. It all looks so different; so much more focused.
The whole overall effect is startling and dynamic and full of promise. Banghart has transformed this team.
Isostatic rebound is a geological term. It’s what happens when a glacier recedes from a patch of land and that land actually regains topographic elevation now that the weight of the ice is lifted. The burdens of unfathomably dense minerals and time have been removed, and the earth pushes back up towards a slightly higher plane.
It’s early. We don’t know what any of this is building towards. But every indicator so far says this is going to resonate and continue. From the bleachers in Carmichael, watching the new-look Tar Heels, you can almost feel your seat vibrate a little in sympathy. Like the whole barn, and everyone in it, is slowly but inexorably moving to higher ground.