Tar Heels lived up to hype
By Aaron Beard
North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough heard the criticism that his game wasn’t what it was when he became national player of the year. There were questions whether he could ever be viewed as one of the game’s all-time greats if he never won a national championship.
That’s all been erased by a dominant NCAA title run.
“I thought I was going to be validated either way,” Hansbrough said as he wore a clipped-down net around his neck. “I’m just part of something special on this team. Whoever said ‘He’s not validated’ or whatever, I’m validated right now.”
The entire squad has been validated. The Tar Heels (34-4) entered the year with the pressure of being the unanimous No. 1, a team that had four players put off the NBA. Attempting to make a run at the title that had eluded them at the Final Four last season, the Heels started a surprising 0-2 in the ACC.
There were key injuries, and they didn’t seem able to play championship-caliber defense, either.
Ultimately, they had everything they needed: a dominant point guard in Ty Lawson, a prolific perimeter scorer in Wayne Ellington, a versatile threat in Danny Green. Throw in plenty of depth, Hansbrough’s iron-willed determination with Roy Williams on the bench and the Tar Heels lived up to preseason expectations.
After winning the ACC regular-season championship, North Carolina rolled through the NCAA tournament ó winning every game by double figures ó in a run that ended with a 89-72 romp over Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit on Monday night.
The result was the program’s fifth NCAA championship and second in the past five seasons under Williams, who spent a decade as an assistant to Dean Smith and 15 years at Kansas before returning to his alma mater in 2003.
The morning after beating the Spartans, Williams ó operating on about two hours sleep from the late-night celebration ó was asked where this team ranked among the program’s all-time best.
“Well, there’s only, what, five banners up there now?” Williams said. “So, at worst, it’s one of the five (best). I can say all I want about the ’84 team (at UNC) that may have been the best team I was ever around or the ’97 Kansas team that may have been the best team I was ever around. But those guys don’t have the ring and don’t have the banner.”
Hansbrough finished his four-year career with an ACC-record 2,872 points and a school-record 1,219 rebounds to go with the national record of 982 made free throws. He’s 12th all-time in NCAA scoring.
Hansbrough, Green, Bobby Frasor and Michael Copeland are part of a class that won 124 games and served as the foundation of the rebuilding effort that followed the 2005 title.
The question now is who will be back to lead next year’s squad.
Lawson and Ellington both probably helped their NBA draft stock by returning to school, with Lawson winning the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard and Ellington becoming the most outstanding player at the Final Four. Williams said he has not spoken with either player about the draft and didn’t have a timetable for a decision.
Lawson said after Monday’s game that he would talk with his parents and Williams. Ellington said it was too early to discuss it.
Another underclassman, 6-foot-10 freshman Ed Davis, has been mentioned as a top draft prospect, but he said he was not ready for the NBA and would return to school.
Even if Lawson and Ellington leave, the Tar Heels will have forward Deon Thompson (10.6 points, 5.7 rebounds) back along with Marcus Ginyard, the versatile leader and top defender for the 2008 squad who had to redshirt this year due to a slow recovery from foot surgery. Freshman Tyler Zeller, who sat out 13 weeks with a broken wrist before returning to help the Tar Heels’ title run, will also likely return.
North Carolina also figures to have reserve Will Graves back from a team suspension, and freshman Larry Drew II would likely inherit Lawson’s job after gaining experience as a reserve this year.
In addition, the Tar Heels add a recruiting class ranked second nationally by Scout.com. The group includes the top-ranked power forward in John Henson.
It’s a much better situation than in 2005, when the Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers to graduation or early entry to the NBA. And Thompson figures it might be easier waiting on this year’s NBA decisions than it was after last year’s Final Four loss to Kansas.
“It won’t be as nerve-racking, I guess, and guys won’t have that motivation,” Thompson said. “Maybe to do it again is the only way you can look at it. But with the talented group of core guys we’ve got coming in next year to replace those seniors and those guys who are potentially leaving, this team will be way too talented next year if those guys did come back.”
Not that the Tar Heels are worried about all that right now.
“This team is just so excited and so happy for each other,” Ginyard said. “That’s the last thing on anybody’s mind.”