Carolina seeks different Final Four
By Tom Canavan
NEWARK, N.J. — Leslie McDonald remembers walking through the center of campus and down the main drag in Chapel Hill, N.C., last year and getting a sickening, uncomfortable feeling.
People seemed to be staring, wondering what was wrong with the Tar Heels. The team that won the national title in 2009 had become mediocre in less than a year.
The Final Four for North Carolina became a trip to New York for the NIT, and the Tar Heels couldn’t even win that.
A year later, North Carolina’s back, and its sights are set on another national title.
Standing in the Tar Heels’ way next is Marquette, a tough-minded team led by a group of former junior college standouts that played its way into the NCAA party with a big win in the Big East tournament.
The Tar Heels (28-7) will make their 31st appearance in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal when they face the Golden Eagles (24-11) on Friday night at the Prudential Center, the first time a regional has been held in New Jersey’s largest city.
The winner will face Kentucky or Ohio State on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four in Houston.
“This is a chance to play for the national championship,” North Carolina sophomore forward John Henson said Thursday. “Every day you step on the court from here on out, you’re playing for a national title. We just have to take these last steps.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Tar Heels, who lost 17 games last season and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since Roy Williams took over as coach in 2003-04.
“It was kind of embarrassing, knowing you’re playing on the team and you are not getting the job done,” McDonald said of his freshman year. “At the same time, I didn’t want to have that feeling again. We as a team put the time in this summer. The preseason in the Bahamas and the three freshmen really helped us. We feel pretty good walking on campus now.”
Those three freshmen are Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall and Reggie Bullock, and Barnes is special. The forward leads the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points. Junior forward Tyler Zeller averages 15.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, while Henson averages 11.9 points and 10.1 rebounds.
“They are as fast as anybody in the country in the first 10 seconds of a possession,” Marquette’s energetic coach Buzz Williams said. “That will cause great problems for us, as it has every other opponent that they have played this year.”
He then rattled off a slew of statistics about the Tar Heels, noting they were 25-2 when they outrebounded their opponent and that 35 percent of their points were scored on shots at the rim.
“Part of that is because they are so far ahead of their opponent, if they miss a shot they can put it back in,” the Marquette coach added.
“So we will have our hands full from the start, but we are thankful to be here.”
A couple of weeks ago, there were many who had doubts the Golden Eagles would even be invited to the NCAA tournament. They finished the regular season with losses to Cincinnati, one of the 11 Big East teams to make the tournament, and Seton Hall.
The loss to Seton Hall was embarrassing. Marquette knew it was on the bubble heading into the game and got blown out by the sub-.500 Pirates.
Williams spent an hour after that game — which coincidentally was played in this building — and talked to his team about the future.
“It was not a kumbaya meeting, not a prayer meeting, just a truthful meeting,” he said.
Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom, who leads the team with a 16-point average, said one thing was clear after meeting.
“You know that we have to play harder,” said Johnson-Odom, one of five JUCO players who see action in the Golden Eagles’ rotation. “When we lose games like that, we just have to play harder.”
That’s exactly what the Golden Eagles have done since the loss. They beat Providence and West Virginia in the Big East tournament, before losing to Louisville.
As an 11th seed in the NCAAs, the Golden Eagles have knocked off Xavier 66-55 and third-seeded Syracuse 66-62 to reach the round of 16 for the 14th time in school history. They are also only one of two Big East teams still playing. Connecticut is the other.
“I think tomorrow is definitely going to be a close game down to the wire, one or two possessions,” said Marquette forward Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 15.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. “And like I said, the toughest team is going to win.”
The last time North Carolina and Marquette met in the NCAA tournament was on March 28, 1977, in the championship game. Marquette won 67-59 for coach Al McGuire.
McDonald believes this can be North Carolina’s year again.
“I know all those Duke fans last year were enjoying it,” he said. “We’re back this year. We’re back on track.”