UNC is back, not blue

ncaa men final four

April 04, 2009|By DAVID TEEL | DAVID TEEL,Newport News Daily Press

DETROIT -College basketball hasn't feted an undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976. The last team to even enter the NCAA tournament unblemished was Nevada-Las Vegas in 1991.

History and context, however, became roadkill when Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green resisted the NBA and returned to North Carolina this season.

"We were anointed," coach Roy Williams said.

Not for the Final Four. Not for a championship.

For perfection.

Predictably, the Tar Heels stumbled. Four times, in fact.

But here they are back at the Final Four. Despite the preposterous hype. Despite myriad injuries.

And determined to atone for a bumbling first half on the same stage a year ago.

North Carolina (32-4) is favored to defeat Villanova (30-7) in Saturday night's second semifinal. No man bites beagle there - the Tar Heels have been favored in every game this season.

"There's no question it would have been a huge disappointment if we hadn't gotten back to the Final Four," Williams said.

"We have high expectations every year - it's nothing new to us," said Green, a senior forward. "I think it was more this year. They were expecting us to go undefeated and all that talk. We lost a couple of games, and everybody thought the world was ending."

Indeed, after opening the season 13-0, the Tar Heels dropped their first two Atlantic Coast Conference contests, at home to Boston College and on the road to Wake Forest.

North Carolina was defending poorly and shooting erratically. Injuries were exacting a toll.

Marcus Ginyard, the Tar Heels' best defender, was sidelined for the season by a foot injury; freshman Tyler Zeller had broken his wrist; and Hansbrough was nursing a bum right shin.

"Early on I was just so frustrated," said Hansbrough, last season's National Player of the Year. "I was so down about everything. I made the decision to come back for my senior year, and here I am sitting on the sidelines not knowing when I'll be back or if my injury is going to get any worse."

He wasn't the only one.

"This has been a tough year for me mentally, emotionally, with the adversity," Williams said. "There's no question about it. It's been a hard year. ... Our top players have missed 85 games. I've never had anything like that in my years as a head coach. ...

"I can remember standing in that locker room at Wake Forest, and we're 0-2 in the league. And I told our guys, 'You play from here on out, and we'll be there at the end.' It was not any panic with our coaching staff. The kids believed in us."

Since that night at Wake Forest, North Carolina is 18-2. The Tar Heels gave away a game at Maryland, squandering a 16-point second-half lead; they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament with Lawson, the ACC Player of the Year, on the bench with a toe injury.

In short, they've played to form, the nation's most talented team capable of scoring from every position.

"I'm probably as proud of this team as any team I've ever coached," Williams said.

Hansbrough's numbers declined from last season, but he remained as fierce as ever inside; Ellington and Lawson improved markedly, Ellington as a slasher and ball-handler, Lawson as a leader.

The passive defense that caused the losses to Boston College and Wake? Vanished.

"I have really pushed hard defensively," Williams said. "We've had to get better. Sometimes we haven't paid attention to detail. We've been too casual sometimes ... but at times we've been pretty doggone good defensively. We've had some big-time stops when we've needed them."

Most impressive and important, the Tar Heels focused on the season at hand rather than their NBA futures. Team was primary, statistics secondary.

Through it all, they remembered last season's Final Four semifinal against Kansas, when they fell behind 40-18 and lost, 84-66.

"They hit us right in the mouth," Williams said. "It took us 15 minutes before we realized we were playing a game."

Tonight, they vow, will be different. No lethargic start. No using Final Four distractions as a crutch.

Tonight, they say, is about unfinished business, about continuing to play through any adversity that arises.

"That's what makes us most proud," Ginyard said. "We never let anything that happened get in the way of our vision."

semifinals (games on chs. 13, 9)

Michigan State vs. Connecticut

6:07 p.m. Line: UConn by 4

Villanova vs. North Carolina

8:47 p.m. Line: UNC by 7 1/2

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