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North Carolina Tar Heels stayed focused on NCAA Tournament title

DETROIT — In coach Roy Williams' mind, the NCAA championship defining moment for his North Carolina team came not when it cut down the nets after the resounding win against Michigan State.

It came at, of all times, following a loss in the ACC tournament several weeks earlier.

The Tar Heels, who were without injured point guard Ty Lawson, the league's player of the year, had just been nipped by Florida State 73-70 to end their bid for a third straight ACC tournament title.

"I stood up in the locker room and told them (that the loss) doesn't make any difference, that we can still do something that people will talk about forever," Williams said, still aglow from the 89-72 win for the school's fifth title.

He had never been much of a fan of conference tournaments anyway, always suspecting that the grind of trying to win three games in three days took a toll that can catch up to a team when the stakes were far greater.

In 2007, his top-seeded Tar Heels lost to Georgetown in overtime in the Elite Eight. In 2008, the Heels, the top seed overall in the NCAA field, lost to Kansas in the Final Four.

"Nobody talked about, 'Yeah. But that's okay; you won our conference tournament,' " he deadpanned. "So we knew we had the biggest prize in front of us. Our team really focused and, yes, Ty got healthy, and our seniors just did a really great job on the leadership part of it."

You think? Consider that the Tar Heels won NCAA games against Radford, LSU, Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Villanova and the Spartans (the last five all in the AP Top 25) by at least 12 points and, with the exception of being tied with LSU at 63 with 8:35 left, they weren't really pressed.

"I don't think they have quite the depth that some teams have had," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of other NCAA Tournament foes, mentioning Memphis and Texas in recent years. "But there's six or seven players there that arguably could play for anybody. And they don't have a lot of weaknesses. … When you play a Connecticut, there's some people you can cheat off; there's something you can do. When you play North Carolina, there's nothing you can do."

Can anyone do something about the Heels next season?

Tyler Hansbrough, a four-time All-American and the consensus player of the year in the 2007-08 season, is done. So are fellow seniors and key contributors Danny Green and Bobby Frasor. And Lawson and Tournament MVP Wayne Ellington are likely headed to the NBA.

"I haven't even thought about it," Ellington said, laughing. "Right now, we don't even care (about the NBA)."

Even if UNC loses its top four starters and Frasor, the cupboard won't be stripped. Junior forward Deon Thompson was the team's fifth-leading scorer (he averaged 10.6 points), and freshman forward Ed Davis looks like a star, leading the team in blocks (65) and was second to Hansbrough in rebounding (6.6).

"Me and Ed play really well together," Thompson said. "It's going to be exciting to see how good we can be next year."

There are some touted prospects heading to Chapel Hill, including Sickles High standout 6-10 forward John Henson, guard Dexter Strickland, sibling forwards David and Travis Wear, and guard Leslie McDonald. The first four were named to the McDonald's All-American Game that was played last week.

"I think there'll be another strong showing," Lawson said of the Heels. "This is a program that's all about giving and sharing. We don't have anybody with attitudes. That's why I think we won a championship this year. I think we can make another run at a national championship."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

North Carolina Tar Heels stayed focused on NCAA Tournament title 04/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 12:19am]
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