Thursday, April 09, 2009

UNC Fulfills Its Destiny After an Unfulfilling Tournament

By John Feinstein
The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 4:24 PM

When it was all said and done, the college basketball season ended exactly where it began.

When the first polls came out in November, the unanimous choice to win the national championship was North Carolina. In fact, there was a good deal of speculation about whether the Tar Heels could become the first men's team in 33 years to go undefeated.

They didn't. It didn't matter.

No one is unbeatable in college basketball anymore, but the team Roy Williams put on the court the last three weeks was about as close to that as we are likely to see anytime in the near future. North Carolina was talented, deep, well coached, balanced and, most importantly, experienced.

Ultimately, that was what separated this team from everyone else. It had players who could have left early to play in the NBA but didn't. Most of the time when players are still around as juniors and seniors, it's because they aren't ready for the next level. Villanova seniors Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson are a perfect example; they were very good college players who would not have drawn a sniff from the NBA had they left early.

Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all would have been drafted a year ago. Hansbrough had no interest in leaving school. He liked college and he felt unfulfilled when the Tar Heels lost to Kansas in the Final Four last spring. The other three all put their names into the NBA draft but withdrew them. Lawson probably would have been a first-round pick, but there were enough questions about him that it wasn't a lock. Ellington and Green were second-rounders. So they all ended up coming back.

That put Williams into an enviable yet difficult coaching situation. He knew he had the best team. He also knew that if his team stayed healthy but didn't cut down the nets this season in Detroit, there would be all sorts of question to answer.

Now there are no questions, just well-deserved kudos.

Williams made a smart decision holding Lawson and his aching toe out of the ACC tournament. There's no doubt Lawson could have played, and if he had, North Carolina might very well have won a third straight ACC tournament title. But as Williams noted quietly to people that week, he heard a lot more comments the last two years about NCAA tournament losses to Kansas and Georgetown than about back-to-back conference championships.

The bar is always set high in Chapel Hill, so Williams sat Lawson, gritted his teeth after losing to Florida State in the ACC semifinals and made sure Lawson was healthy before bringing him back in the second round of the NCAA tournament against LSU. That turned out to be the one game in which North Carolina was challenged, and Lawson announced his return with a superb second half, helping his team pull away in the final minutes.

In a sense, the tournament ended that evening. The Tar Heels' last four games -- against Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Villanova and Michigan State -- were over, for all intents and purposes, by halftime. It was arguably the most dominating performance seen in an NCAA tournament since Indiana blew away five straight opponents in 1981. In a second-round game that year against Maryland, the Terrapins' Ernest Graham shook his fist while running downcourt after making a jump shot to give Maryland an 8-0 lead.

Bob Knight never even moved on the bench at that moment. He knew something Graham didn't. The final score was 99-64.

The Tar Heels didn't beat anyone by 35, but they probably could have. This was call-your-score basketball, and the sound you heard Monday night just before 10 p.m. was most of the nation's TV sets clicking off when the score reached 43-20 with almost seven minutes left before halftime.

It's a shame that our last memory of this Michigan State team will be Monday's 89-72 rout, because the Spartans deserve to be remembered for far more than that. This was a team that struggled with injuries and health issues for much of the season before jelling at just the right time in March.

If Williams is now the preeminent coach in the game, Tom Izzo isn't that far behind. He can play slow and he can play fast -- ask Connecticut -- and his teams almost always play their best basketball when it matters most. What the Spartans did for Detroit and for the state of Michigan with their run to the championship game won't soon be forgotten.

The Spartans weren't just good, they were terrific in beating Louisville and Connecticut. And the way they handled the notion of being Detroit's team, the group that was bringing some joy and light to a place in desperate need of it, was close to perfect. There were more than a few lumps in throats on Saturday when Kalin Lucas asked to be introduced as "a sophomore from Detroit, Michigan" (he actually grew up 25 miles away but has a grandmother who lives in Detroit), and the sight of the entire team waving to the fans at Ford Field after the Connecticut game is one that won't be forgotten soon by anyone who was there.

The only problem with Michigan State's run is that it will allow the NCAA to believe that it didn't commit a complete folly with the way it configured the building. Putting the court in the middle of the football field meant that almost no one in the place had a good seat. In fact, there were exactly five people who had a really good view of the court: the two coaches, who sat on stools on the court while the rest of their teams sat on sunken benches, and CBS's Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and their statistician, who sat on raised seats on the opposite side of the court.

That was it. Everyone else was either looking up at the court, looking over someone's head to find the court or sitting somewhere near the Canadian border. In all likelihood, there would have been scores of empty seats if the Spartans hadn't upset Louisville.

The NCAA jumped the shark with this setup. Everyone knows that almost everything it does is designed to keep its banker -- CBS, to the tune of almost $600 million a year -- happy. That's why the starting times are so ridiculous, the timeouts (10 a game) so long, halftime 20 minutes and Nantz and Kellogg on raised chairs.

Okay, fine. You sell your soul, you have to deal with the devil. But putting the court in the middle of the football field isn't just a money grab, it's potentially dangerous. At some point, some year a player is going to go tumbling down the steps in front of a bench in pursuit of a loose ball. And then everyone will shake their heads and talk about how sad it is.

Beyond that, the NCAA owes the fans something. It's bad enough the Final Four will always be in a dome and that people are asked to attend early-round games that end well after midnight -- not to mention a championship game that ends just before midnight. At least give the people who are paying big bucks to get into the event a decent view.

Of course, the NCAA will claim that the whole thing was a huge success, that complaints were minimal and that everyone loved the atmosphere.

That's just not true. Everyone loved what Michigan State did and, even in a town ravaged by the economy, everyone who got to watch the Spartans play and to be any part of the story couldn't help but enjoy it. And if you didn't appreciate the play of North Carolina, you aren't a basketball fan.

But this was the least exciting NCAA tournament in years, played in the worst Final Four atmosphere ever. (This wasn't Detroit's fault, as the people could not have been warmer or more accommodating.) There was one truly memorable game in the 64 played in the tournament (Villanova-Pittsburgh in the East Region final) and only a handful of others that kept you involved until the very end.

But the margins of the final three games were 9 points, 14 points and 17 points. The championship game was all but over after 10 minutes. The NCAA can't control that, but it can control the game experience the people paying to be in the building are allowed to enjoy.

"Happy Days" was never the same after Fonzie jumped the shark. Sadly, chances are the same will be true of the Final Four.

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