Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Champs' hallmark is staying power

By Bob Ryan, Boston Globe Columnist
April 7, 2009

DETROIT - APRIL 06: Ty Lawson #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives on Travis Walton #5 of the Michigan State Spartans in the second half during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Ford Field on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

DETROIT - When Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and Danny Green decided to wait a year to enter the NBA, thus pretty much assuring the outcome of the 2008-09 college basketball season that we all saw last night, North Carolina coach Roy Williams needed to make sure of one thing before he began picturing himself cutting down the nets on this April Monday at Ford Field.

He wanted to make sure they would be focused on winning, not on, you know, "working on their game," or some such nonsense. The players were practically insulted. "Coach," they said, "it's us, true Tar Heels through and through." (OK, I may have embellished this a little.)

"If they were not 100 percent in agreement with that," Williams said at the time, "they should go on and stay in the draft."

They stayed and they conquered, erasing the memory of last year's semifinal shocker against Kansas (an early 40-12 deficit, you may recall) with one of the great championship shows in NCAA history, rolling to a 20-point lead over Michigan State before the game was 10 minutes old, leading by a record 21 points (55-34) at the half, and cruising to a 89-72 victory.

It was the fifth NCAA championship for North Carolina, and the second in five years for 1972 Carolina alumnus Williams, who was allowed to migrate to Kansas for a head coaching apprenticeship (that included two Final Four appearances) before being ordered home to Momma by the great Carolina pooh-bah Dean Smith to rescue the university from the shame of having the world think Duke was a better basketball school.

Oh, the indignity!

DETROIT - APRIL 06: Head coach Roy Williams and Tyler Hansbrough #50 of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrate after they won 89-72 against the Michigan State Spartans during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Ford Field on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Well, no one thinks that anymore. Coach K has a lot of serious recruiting to do if he wishes to keep up with his neighbor in Chapel Hill. In the last four years, Carolina quietly has separated itself from the rest of the ACC, Duke included.

And it didn't take the Heels long to put some distance between themselves and Michigan State, not to mention its hordes, last night.

The only thing keeping this from being an official wire-to-wire Carolina conquest was a Goran Suton 3-pointer that gave the Spartans a 3-2 lead. Green answered with an instant 3-pointer, and Carolina never trailed again, running out to such leads as 17-7 and 24-8. It was 31-11 when the game was 9 1/2 minutes old.

The Tar Heels demonstrated superiority in every category, hitting six of their first seven shots, not allowing Michigan State to get its cherished second-chance points, and harassing State, which had been taking very good care of the ball as it marched to the championship game, into 11 first-half turnovers.

During the season, much was made of the fact that six teams (Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Oklahoma) were No. 1 at some point. And yet didn't most seasoned observers (and even quite a few lightly-seasoned ones) feel that, if all things were equal, North Carolina was a bit more equal than anyone else? Why, yes, they did. And during this NCAA Tournament, we all found out why.

In fact, had senior guard Marcus Ginyard been healthy and in the lineup all season, there is a very good chance the Tar Heels would have become the first Division 1 team since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated. That's conjecture, of course, but what is beyond debate is the scope of Carolina's postseason accomplishment.

DETROIT - APRIL 06: Danny Green #14 of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates with the championship trophy after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 89-72 during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Ford Field on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Michigan State was a worthy competitor. The Spartans had arrived at the championship game having eliminated third-seeded Kansas, top-seeded Louisville, and top-seeded Connecticut, and coach Tom Izzo was confident his team could make Carolina its third consecutive top-seeded victim.

Oh, he had acknowledged that if the Heels brought their A game, his team couldn't compete. But he also stressed that it was a one-game scenario and that his team had found a very successful formula in the tournament.

"We have found a way to have some good teams not play as good against us," Izzo noted.
Ah, not this team.

State had ripped the heart out of Louisville and outlasted UConn, but the Spartans looked like just another speed bump on the Carolina road to glory in the first half. Much had been made of the stupendous backing the Spartans were going to receive from the NCAA-record crowd of 72,922, but Williams declared that his teams never had been beaten by a building. The Heels made sure the crowd would not be a factor by taking it out of the game with their blistering start.

Deon Thompson, the least-heralded member of the Carolina starting five, began posting up at will, and soon Wayne Ellington was hitting jumpers and, of course, every once in a while the Heels would rip off a fast break.

The Tar Heel bench isn't particularly deep, but it does have one keeper in 6-foot-9-inch freshman Ed Davis, who made himself known with a strong inside presence. The rumor is that he, too, will be joining Messrs. Hansbrough, Green, and Lawson in a major exodus to the Land of Stern. But the way Williams has it going, there's little doubt there will be another future NBA lad to take his place.

State's not going anywhere, by the way. Unless some of his key players elect to do something foolish - you never know - Izzo will be right back next year with a Final Four-level team led by guard Kalin Lucas and excellent young players such as Delvon Roe (oh, did Williams lust for him during the recruiting process), Durrell Summers, and Draymond Green.

But these kids weren't ready for the Carolina team that greeted them last night. It turns out Carolina was exactly who we always thought it was.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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