CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's season began with the goal of defending its latest national championship. It ended with the Tar Heels figuring out how excited to get by reaching the NIT championship game.
Injuries, criticism, blowout losses — it all added up to the Tar Heels' worst season since Roy Williams returned to his alma mater.
"This was the hardest year I've ever had coaching, there's no question about that," Williams said after Thursday night's loss to Dayton in the NIT final in New York. "I didn't do a very good job with this team and that is hard for a coach to say, but I can say it because I believe it."
North Carolina (20-17) knew it had to replace departed stars Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington from the team that won the program's second NCAA title in five years. The Tar Heels couldn't, and suffered more losses than in the previous three years combined (14) and finish 10th in the Atlantic Coast Conference after being the preseason co-favorite with rival Duke.
Williams missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since inheriting a Kansas team on probation for his first year as a head coach, while the Tar Heels went from being ranked sixth nationally in the preseason to flirting with their second losing season in a half-century.
Only four straight wins in the NIT prevented that, which aside from early wins against Ohio State and Final Four participant Michigan State was their biggest accomplishment.
"It kind of gives you a little better taste in your mouth, but at the same time, it's still a disappointing year," sophomore 7-footer Tyler Zeller said. "We want to get to the NCAA tournament. We don't really want to be in the NIT. We've just got to learn from it."
North Carolina seemed better positioned than when Williams lost his top seven scorers from his first championship team in 2005. This time, he returned a double-figure scorer in Deon Thompson, a versatile fifth-year senior in Marcus Ginyard — the team's top defender on its Final Four run of two seasons earlier, and a promising big man in sophomore Ed Davis.
The players around that core — a talented recruiting class and a pair of unproven returnees in point guard Larry Drew II and 3-point threat Will Graves — seemed enough to at least contend in the ACC. Yet while the 2006 team steadily improved, these Tar Heels were more a mistake-prone collection of talented parts than a cohesive unit.
They forced Williams to adjust his long-held approach to search for answers, even made him burn the timeouts he hoards like his mentor Dean Smith. But the fast offense Lawson directed a season earlier was nowhere to be seen.
Then came the injuries.
Davis was lost to a broken left wrist in February. Zeller, who missed most of last season with a broken wrist of his own, missed a month with a foot injury. Freshman David Wear missed the final month with a hip injury, while another six players missed time with injuries.
Even Williams needed surgery in November on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum suffered when he slipped on a wet step at a golf course during a charity event. He coached with his arm in a sling for several weeks.
Things weren't much better off the court, either. Williams drew negative headlines for having a fan ejected from the Smith Center in December for yelling at Thompson to miss a free throw, then was criticized for telling a clumsy anecdote that some interpreted as comparing the Tar Heels' struggles to the Haiti earthquake disaster.
It's easy to understand why Williams, when asked after losing in the first round of the ACC tournament whether things would be better next season, responded, "It better be. I can't live through another one like this."
At first glance, he won't have to. Thompson and Ginyard will be gone, and Davis might bolt for the NBA, but Drew can only benefit from even a rocky year at the point. Touted rookie John Henson improved late after moving from small forward back to the post, while the core of this year's team is expected to return.
As for the influx of talent, Williams won a fierce fight for top recruit Harrison Barnes, while shooting guard Reggie Bullock — recently named the Associated Press men's player of the year for North Carolina — and point guard Kendall Marshall will bolster a backcourt that was this team's biggest weakness.
Then again, everything looked fine before this year, too.
"Does it make me any less confident? I don't think so," Williams said in early March. "Because I do still have that idea that for 21 years in a row, we did it all right. ... If next year we're having the same conversation, my confidence will be shook a little bit. And the following year if we're having this conversation, I'll go to the first tee."
AP Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.