North Carolina plays role of favorite in Final Four
Saturday, April 4, 2009
NCAA tournament resumes today with the semifinals.
DETROIT -- They're not quite who we thought they were.
North Carolina isn't exactly that group of kids who just couldn't resist banding together to take another shot at winning the national title.
Villanova isn't exactly that lovable little underdog looking for the perfect game, a la the 1985 title team led by Rollie Massimino.
They meet today in the Final Four, each a win away from playing for the national title, and each still waiting to write the final chapter on how they'll be remembered.
"There's no question it would have been a huge disappointment if we hadn't gotten back to the Final Four," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Such is life when all four NBA prospects decide to stick around another year.
But other than Tyler Hansbrough, last year's player of the year who really likes college, the return of this talented group had more to do with the realities of the NBA than with any pact they made among themselves -- say, the way Florida's players did before they won their second straight championship in 2007.
Wayne Ellington and Danny Green went through workouts and weren't projected as first-round draft picks. Ty Lawson got mixed feedback.
"I talked to 24 teams and every team I talked to about Ty said, 'I think he's going to be a No. 1 draft choice,"' Williams said. "But none of those teams said they were going to take him. The teams in the top 20 told me they would not. So I gave Ty and his family that information."
Oddly enough, though, instead of having to re-recruit the players, as so many coaches often do, Williams almost tried to unrecruit them. He welcomed them back but only with conditions.
"Please understand, if you decide to come back, it's not going to be about you," Williams said of his conversations with the players. "I'm not going to get you 30 shots. I'm not going to figure out how to make you the leading scorer."
Rather, he was going to try to put together a team that could get back to the Final Four and a chance to fashion a better ending than last year. North Carolina fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the first half and a furious rally fell short.
"It was our first Final Four," Hansbrough explained. "Now, I guess we'll be more prepared."
Return of underdog
The Tar Heels (32-4) are, not surprisingly, a 5-6 favorite to win the whole tournament and a 7 1/2-point pick over Villanova (30-7).
Yes, the Wildcats are the underdogs here in Detroit. But not THAT kind of underdog.
That 1985 team holds a special place not just in the hallways at Villanova, but in the history of college basketball -- a team that injected the madness into March and made winners out of bracketologists who believed in miracles.
With that rumpled shirt, the tie askew, his pasta-soft belly, Massimino kept telling his players they couldn't -- until they somehow believed they could. He coaxed a championship out of a team with a No. 8 seed and only one sure-thing NBA player, Ed Pinckney.
Taking on a burgeoning dynasty in Patrick Ewing and Georgetown, the Wildcats won 66-64 by shooting 78.6 percent that night at Rupp Arena, a mark that has only been topped twice since in the NCAA tournament (Oklahoma State 1992, North Carolina 1998) and never with the stakes so high.
They played the perfect game.
This Villanova team might not have to.
"Our players believe they can win," coach Jay Wright said. "We use a term, 'We don't have to play perfect, we just have to play together.' That's how we're going to play, and our guys believe we're going to win that way."
There are some similarities to 1985 -- most notably that Villanova is not chock full of NBA-caliber talent the way Carolina is, or Georgetown was.
But you don't fight your way through the Big East, don't knock off a team such as Pittsburgh with a Final Four trip on the line, don't win 30 games and still have energy left unless there's something more there.
This year's Villanova was a No. 3 seed; No. 3 seeds don't sneak up on people.
Meanwhile, Wright won't be confused for Massimino anytime soon -- his chiseled jaw and dark good looks more fitting for an Armani ad than a basketball sideline. All of a sudden, he found himself standing next to Tom Izzo, Jim Calhoun and Williams the other night in a gathering of Final Four coaches -- an achievement not lost on him or his hard-to-impress teenage sons, Taylor and Colin.
"They're like, 'Wow, it was cool seeing dad up there with those guys,"' Wright said. "They think those guys are good coaches. They just think I'm dad."
He recruits legit Big East talent, because nothing less will do in that bruising conference.
Dwayne Anderson is part of a senior class that has set a record with 102 wins over four years.
His NBA prospects aside, Dante Cunningham is a legit college stud, averaging 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
And there's Scottie Reynolds, who has a permanent place on the NCAA highlight reel -- his end-to-end scramble for the winning bucket against Pitt already being mentioned in the same breath as Tyus Edney and Danny Ainge.
"Hopefully it will go down in history," Reynolds said. "Hopefully, they'll say we won a championship, as well."