North Carolina was universally considered the team to beat when the season began, the first-ever unanimous pick in the Associated Press' pre-season media poll.
When the season came to an end Monday night at Ford Field in Detroit, the Tar Heels were standing on the podium clutching the national championship trophy. Just as everyone expected in November, North Carolina won it all by rolling through the NCAA tournament with all six victories coming by at least 12 points, including an 89-72 win over Michigan State in the championship gam--despite the Spartans' home-state advantage.
Nevertheless, North Carolina's run to the national championship and a final record of 34-4 was anything but a wire-to-wire job.
The Tar Heels lost their first two games of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, getting knocked off at home by Boston College then falling at Wake Forest. That changed the conversation from whether they would go down as one of the greatest team in college basketball history to whether they would be one of the all-time busts.
No wonder coach Roy Williams felt this was the more satisfying than his first national championship, which he won in 2005 at North Carolina, his alma mater.
"The expectations, regardless of how little I let that affect me, it affected players because I can't control the families and the friends and the people around them," Williams said.
Following the loss at Wake Forest, Williams turned to assistant coach Steve Robinson as he addressed the team. Robinson was an assistant under Williams at Kansas in 1991 when the Jayhawks lost in the national championship game.
The conversation went like this:
Williams: Coach, do you remember 1991, what we started out the season?
Robinson: Yes, we started out 0-2.
Williams: Coach, do you remember where we finished that season?
Robinson: Yes, we played Duke University for the national championship.
"I told my team to keep that to themselves, which is a challenge because Danny Green turns around and tells the media everything I tell the team," Williams said. "I told them if they would do what we asked them to do, we'd have a chance and be there at the end.
"Needless to say, they exceeded that. But the expectations, it's hard for a coach to control that. I kept talking to them about dreams and goals, so that was part of it. But the other part is it was one of the hardest years I've ever had in coaching."
Much of the difficulty came from the multitude of injuries North Carolina dealt with throughout the season.
Senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, who decided to forgo the NBA draft after being the consensus national player of the year last season, missed three of the first four games with a stress fracture in his shin. Junior point guard Ty Lawson sat out both of the Tar Heels' games in the ACC tournament, including a loss to Florida State in the semifinals, and the first-round win over Radford in the NCAA tournament with a toe injury.
Senior guard Marcus Ginyard, considered North Carolina's top defender, suffered a stress fracture in his foot during pre-season practice. He returned for three games in late December and early January, reinjured the foot then made a last-second cameo against Michigan State.
Freshman center Tyler Zeller sat out 19 games with a broken wrist he suffered in the second game of the season against Kentucky.
"How would you like to be coaching a guy who came back to school when he could have gone and he has a stress reaction condition and, one day if I make a mistake he could break his leg?," Williams said. "Every agent in America would start smiling because they would say, 'see, you shouldn't go back.' So, for four weeks I'm worried about him. Should I practice him for eight plays or should I cut it to seven?
"At the end of the year with Ty Lawson I'm the same way. Should I practice him four minutes or three? Should I hold him out of the Radford game, the ACC tournament? Then, you lose kids like Tyler Zeller and Marcus Ginyard for the season.
"You add the expectations and adversity together, they're pretty serious. That's what I'd say this championship is sweeter than the other."
Thirty Years Since...
It is generally accepted that college basketball made the leap from regional sport to one of the nation's pastimes 30 years ago when a freshman named Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Michigan State beat Larry Bird and upstart Indiana State in the national championship game. Though the game was far from a classic--Michigan State won 75-64--it enabled the NCAA tournament to become big business as it drew huge television ratings on NBC.
Johnson and Bird presented the game ball before this year's national championship game as the NCAA commemorated the anniversary of their matchup. Both admitted to being amazed at how much college basketball and the NCAA tournament have grown in stature.
"It was two magazines back then, Street & Smith's and Sports Illustrated," Johnson said. "As a basketball player, you hopefully wanted to get in Street & Smith's and maybe get your little picture in Sports Illustrated. Look how much it's changed. Now you can see any basketball team in America on your computer or listen to them on your radio. It's amazing now. I didn't get on national TV in my freshman year until we got to the tournament.
"Now, you've got so many national networks playing games and it's great. You've got the NCAA playing regionals in domes, something you would have never seen when we were playing. It's really grown and it's great. It's grand and it's spectacular.
"You got pools in the office. I know in my office that everybody couldn't wait to get their pools started to see who wins. The NCAA tournament is fantastic and I don't want to them to change a thing because it's the best. It's a beautiful game and a beautiful tournament."
Bird said he was a big fan of the NCAA tournament before it became fashionable, watching such players as UCLA's Lew Alcindor, Houston's Elvin Hayes, Louisiana State's Pete Maravich and Kentucky's Dan Issel on television while growing up in French Lick, Ind.
While his memories of participating in the tournament are mostly good, he admitted he has never watched a replay of the 1979 championship game and likely never will.
"We were picked to finish fourth in (the Missouri Valley Conference) that year and I had no clue we could get to the final game," Bird said. "Once I got a taste of it, I wanted to win that game, not for myself, not for personal glory, but for Indiana State, which never had the opportunity and probably never will again. I wanted to win for the city of Terre Haute, which treated me so well when I was there.
"Down to the last four or five minutes, knowing I wasn't going to be able to do that, wasn't much fun. So I don't like the memories of it."
Brand Unhappy with Kentucky
NCAA president Myles Brand admitted during his annual session with the media at the Final Four that he was alarmed Kentucky would give an eight-year, $31.65-million contract to coach John Calipari during such difficult economic times in order to lure him from Memphis.
"Well, there's obviously market dimension to it because that's what the market paid but I think you have to ask some very hard questions, whether this is really in tune with the academic values, whether we've reached a point already where these high salaraies and packages for coaches have really extended beyond what's expected within the academic community," Brand said. "Those questions really have to be asked. Now, we can't answer them. It's antitrust if we were to try to regulate any salaries but I would hope our university presidents and our conferences would ask those questions themselves."
Now that the coaching carousel has pretty much stopped spinning, the plum job open is Xavier after Sean Miller left for Arizona this week. Among the names being bandied as possible candidates are Wright State's Brad Brownell, Butler's Brad Stevens, Ohio's John Groce, Western Kentucky's Ken McDonald, Bowling Green's Louis Orr and Texas Christian's Jim Christian.
However, it appears Musketeers top assistant Chris Mack is the frontrunner. Xavier had great success when it elevated Miller from the same position to replace Thad Matta five years ago when he left for Ohio State.
More Postseason Glory
Penn State and Oregon State were two of the few teams that won their last game of the season. And while neither the Nittany Lions nor Beavers made it to the NCAA tournament, both programs figure to benefit from capturing other post-season events.
Penn State won the NIT by beating George Mason, Rhode Island, Florida, Notre Dame and Baylor to finish 27-11. Oregon State beat Texas-El Paso two games to one to win the best-of-three championship series of the College Basketball Invitational after defeating Houston, Vermont and Stanford to reach the finals.
Penn State has never gotten a foothold in the Big Ten since moving from the Atlantic 10 in the early 1990s. The Nittany Lions have made just eight NCAA tournament appearances in school history and none since 2001 while playing in the incredibly large shadow cast by Joe Paterno and the football program.
However, Penn State coach Ed DeChellis believes the NIT will make his program stronger.
"I think going through this has allowed our kids to understand the toughness it takes in a tournament setting and also to play in our conference," said DeChellis, whose team finished 27-11.
Winning the CBI was certainly a big step for first-year Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, heretofore best known for being President Barack Obama's brother-in-law. Under Robinson, the Beavers improved to 18-18 from 6-25, a positive development for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1990.
"I knew what we were getting into but I didn't know the details," Robinson said. "This is beyond any expectations I could have had for this first year."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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