John Feinstein: UNC Fulfills Its Destiny After an Unfulfilling Tournament
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.