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Tar Heels are scary good

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

They will wake up disappointed in Pullman, Wash., this morning.

Which is better than Kansas or Memphis, where they couldn't even get to sleep.

Yes, North Carolina was that good Thursday night. Good enough to leave Washington State wondering what just happened, and the rest of the NCAA field wondering what will happen next.

Really, the only thing worse than a good beating is worrying about the beating to come. And the way the Tar Heels are playing, no one is safe.

You want to run with North Carolina? Arkansas tried in the second round and lost 108-77. You want to slow it down against the Tar Heels? Washington State gave it a shot Thursday night and lost 68-47.

The Tar Heels are halfway through the NCAA Tournament and, in case you don't have a calculator handy, they're beating teams by an average of 30 points.

"It's like they're on another level," Cougars senior Robbie Cowgill said.

The only question is whether anyone else is capable of reaching that level. Kansas might have a shot in the national semifinals. UCLA, I suppose, could take a shot in the championship game.

But it's looking more and more like the selection committee got it right when North Carolina was named the No. 1 seed overall.

"What they do is very impressive," said Washington State forward Daven Harmeling. "They keep coming at you continuously. They never stop. Even when you hit a big shot, they run it right down your throat the next time."

That may explain how Tyler Hansbrough, the national player of the year, could miss every shot from the field and turn the ball over three times, and North Carolina could still lead 35-21 at intermission.

That may explain how the Tar Heels are deep enough to have a player on the bench, Danny Green, averaging 11.3 points.

That may explain how North Carolina set a school record with its 35th victory.

"We were better than we showed," Washington State coach Tony Bennett said, "but I do think North Carolina is very special."

Margin of victory is not always an accurate barometer of a team's strength, but Thursday's score is a rather frightening indication of North Carolina's ability to adapt.

After all, the Tar Heels were supposed to be flummoxed by the defense-first, halfcourt style of Washington State. They were supposed to have trouble getting their transition game going, and they were supposed to be frustrated by Washington State's patience on offense.

You didn't really figure the Cougars would beat North Carolina, but you thought they might be that pesky type of team that would make the Tar Heels work. Yeah, well that lasted about 10 minutes.

North Carolina struggled to find its rhythm in the early minutes, missing nine of its first 13 shots and actually trailing 12-10. But after Green came off the bench to hit a 3-pointer, the Tar Heels were literally off and running. They shot 9-of-14 the rest of the half, and the game was over.

"We worked so hard preparing for this, and sprinting back and trying to build a wall," Bennett said. "But you can't mimic that (speed) in practice."

This is the style, you might recall, that Roy Williams famously dissed when he was still at Kansas. Back then, Dick Bennett, Tony's father, was the head coach at Wisconsin and his grind-it-out philosophy took the Badgers to the 2000 Final Four, where they slowed down Michigan State to a 19-17 halftime score.

The next year Williams mocked the score of that game, essentially saying no one wanted to watch that brand of basketball.

Williams didn't attack Washington State's style on Thursday night. Instead, his team simply overcame it.

"You guys have heard me say I'd rather win in the 80s, 90s and 100s, but sometimes you have to win in the 50s and 60s," Williams said. "You have to be tough enough to understand that, and you have to be tough enough to make the shots and tough enough to guard for 35 seconds."

It is still a little too soon to look ahead, but the NCAA just moved a step closer to a delicious possibility in the Final Four. The Tar Heels are one victory away from a potential national semifinal game against Kansas, the school Williams left behind to come home to North Carolina.

At this point, it may be the only real excitement we have on this side of the bracket. The whole idea of the NCAA Tournament is to build suspense.

The way they're playing, the Tar Heels are draining the drama shot by shot.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tar Heels are scary good 03/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 8:42am]
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