DETROIT — Even in an unprecedented Fab Four grouping with the four top seeds reaching the Final Four for the first time, the North Carolina Tar Heels were the prohibitive favorites to win the national championship last season.
They then played a half of basketball against Kansas like none other in the school's storied history.
And not in a good way.
The Jayhawks held a stunning 40-12 lead late in the first half and, after surviving a UNC comeback bid in the second half, pulled away in the final minutes for a convincing 84-66 win.
"Definitely not the way we wanted to end our season last year," UNC senior forward Tyler Hansbrough said Friday as he and his teammates prepared for tonight's Final Four matchup with Villanova at Ford Field. "It was very frustrating for us."
But that game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, gave the Tar Heels (32-4), a No. 1 seed again this time with six of their top seven players from last year back (the other is senior Marcus Ginyard, who has been out injured), something of a rallying cry throughout the offseason and, now, during the postseason.
And in a good way.
"We didn't play the way we were capable of," junior guard Wayne Ellington said. "We want to come out this year and show that we're ready; we're prepared."
Despite spending much of last season atop the Associated Press poll and entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed overall, the Tar Heels inexplicably came out unfocused that night.
Being wide-eyed can have that effect.
"Last year was our first time being here (at the Final Four), so we didn't know what it was like to be here, what it was all about," said senior forward Danny Green, who had a 3-pointer spin out that would have cut the Kansas lead to two with 8:14 left. "We got caught up in a lot of the outside things going, the distractions."
"I think maybe we were a little tight because we weren't used to being on the big stage like a Final Four," added Hansbrough, who spent much of the lead-up time to that semifinal game bouncing between practice and meetings and awards banquets.
Kansas took full advantage.
"I'm positive that I've said it one time, and it may have even been twice, that I've reminded our guys that last year we were happy to be there," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "When we went out against Kansas and looked around, we said, 'My goodness. We're in the Final Four.' They hit us right in the mouth, and it took us 15 minutes before we realized we were playing a game."
It wasn't just that the Tar Heels were playing poorly in the opening half.
The Jayhawks were playing like champions, which they would be two nights later.
"That was the best half we played last year, the best 17 minutes we played last year, and it may have been, it may have been, the best 17 minutes any team in the country played last year," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We were unbelievable.
"We were fortunate they missed shots, but we made shots, and we really guarded and rebounded and were physical."
They were, in fact, a veteran, physically and mentally tough and talented ballclub. Funny, but you could aptly describe the Tar Heels' opponent tonight, No. 3 seed Villanova (30-7), the same way.
The Wildcats start a trio of seniors and two juniors, and this is a bunch that has, in successive NCAA games, routed UCLA by 20 points, shut down Duke to win by 23 then upset No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on guard Scottie Reynolds' driving shot in the lane with 0.5 seconds left.
"I've got some crazy sayings, and one of them is that you can't go out there and tiptoe through the tulips," Williams said. "You have to be ready to plant your feet and make a stand. Last year, we didn't do that. I'm hopeful they understand that part of it."
Otherwise, 2009 could end a lot like 2008.
"We definitely are in a position right now where we know how to handle ourselves," Hansbrough said.
"We want to use that loss as maybe a little motivation."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.