Tar Heels navigated tough road

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Aaron Beard
Associated Press
North Carolina is right where it expected to be ó back in the Final Four and playing like the favorite to win the national championship.
Getting there, however, was a little tougher than anticipated.
The Tar Heels lost key players to injury or suspension. They started 0-2 in the ACC not long after some speculated the team could go unbeaten. And the pressure to make a return trip to the Final Four and contend for the title that got away only grew.
Now, two wins from that goal, it weighs as heavily as ever.
“I do think a lot of people did expect them to be undefeated and a lot of people said, ‘It must be great to be Carolina. It must be easy. You win all the time,’ ” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team faces the Tar Heels in Saturday night’s national semifinals. “It’s not. It’s tough. Their players and coaches handle it extremely well. It amazes me how they handle it.”
The Tar Heels (32-4) have handled expectations just fine in the NCAA tournament, winning four games by double figures. That includes a pair of convincing victories against Gonzaga and Oklahoma in last week’s South Regional games, sending the Tar Heels to a record 18th Final Four.
Of course, anything less would have been a disappointment.
The Tar Heels won a school-record 36 games last year before suffering an ugly loss to Kansas in San Antonio. National player of the year Tyler Hansbrough soon decided he’d return for his senior season, but underclassmen Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green all flirted with the NBA before returning to school.
During a teleconference Monday, coach Roy Williams said the trio came back because they weren’t guaranteed first-round draft picks, not to win a national title.
“There’s no question that it was a factor, but I keep trying to emphasize it was not the biggest factor,” Williams said. “They had a great option, and that great option was trying to come back and win as many games as they could possibly win and have another chance. After the decision was made for those personal reasons, they did collectively embrace the idea that … ‘Let’s see if we can do better this year.’ ”
Things got tougher when versatile senior Marcus Ginyard needed foot surgery in the preseason. His slow recovery limited the team’s top defender to three ineffective games before he decided to redshirt. The Tar Heels also lost 7-foot freshman Tyler Zeller to a broken wrist two games into the year, an injury that sidelined him for 13 weeks before he decided to come back and burn a year of eligibility for the chance at a championship.
North Carolina also lost reserve guard Will Graves to a team suspension in February.
Still, the Tar Heels won the league by beating Duke in the regular-season finale. Then they rested Lawson and his injured toe during the ACC Tournament, ready to sacrifice the conference tourney title in exchange for a healthy ACC player of the year at the NCAAs.
As the journey reaches its final weekend, North Carolina knows it can’t squander this opportunity.
“We have a lot more work to do,” Ellington said after a 72-60 win against the Sooners. “We’re not satisfied at all. We got to this point last year, so we wanted to get back here.”