A deceptively tough run to glory
DETROIT -- It's tempting to say North Carolina was formally presented Monday with a national championship it actually won last summer.
It's tempting to say this thing was over on June 16, 2008. That's the day the last of the Tar Heels' potential NBA draft picks announced they were going back to school -- Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green joining Tyler Hansbrough for one more fling at a ring.
It's tempting to say that from that moment on, it was game over for the 2008-09 college basketball season.
Tempting, but wrong.
That would fail to give Carolina credit for the journey from June to now. Believe it or not, there was some work involved -- some sweat, some anxiety -- in going from landslide favorite to landslide winner of a national title.
"It was one of the hardest years I've ever had in coaching," Roy Williams said after his Tar Heels throttled Michigan State 89-72, the largest title-game margin in 17 years.
Chalking this championship up as an inevitability would discount the angst associated with preseason player of the year Hansbrough missing the start of the season with a stress reaction in his leg. It would overlook the season-ending injury to defensive ace Marcus Ginyard and the 24 games missed by freshman Tyler Zeller. It would gloss over the games Lawson missed at season's end with an injured toe.
"How would you like to be coaching a guy who came back to school when he could have gone, and he has a stress reaction condition?" Williams said. "And one day, if I make a mistake, he could break his leg. Every agent in America would start smiling because they would say, 'See, you shouldn't go back.' So for four weeks, I'm worried about him. At the end of the year with Ty Lawson's toe, it's the same thing."
And don't forget the 0-2 start to Atlantic Coast Conference play. Williams sure hasn't -- "Everybody jumped off the ship," he said. Williams used the second of those two losses, at Wake Forest, as a private rallying cry that he did not make public until the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
In the locker room at Wake, Williams asked assistant coach Steve Robinson how their 1990-91 Kansas team began league play. Robinson said the Jayhawks started 0-2.
Williams asked Robinson where that team finished the season. Robinson said it played in the national championship game against Duke.
"I told my team that in the locker room and I told them to keep it to themselves," Williams said. "If they would do what we asked them to do, we'd have a chance to be there at the end. Needless to say, they exceeded that."
Carolina exceeded that by absolutely pile-driving the Spartans through the raised playing surface of Ford Field. This was the team we expected to see all season: the bulletproof Tar Heels, not the vulnerable group that occasionally lost favor during the season to various Big East flavors of the month.
Carolina was suitably dominant on the final night, punctuating a slash-and-burn run through the NCAA field. Each of its six victories was by double digits -- the first time that's happened since Duke in 2001. The average margin of victory was 20.2 points -- the largest since Kentucky in 1996.
By the time this tournament got going, Carolina was rolling. But even to the end, there were pockets of emotional resistance to the evidence of a juggernaut in motion.
Seduced by the romantic notion that underdog Michigan State might ride a tidal wave of home-state love, we entertained the idea that somebody could beat Carolina in an elimination game. That was truly an attempt to ignore the obvious, since the Heels already had force-fed the Spartans a 35-point knuckle sandwich on the same floor in December.
This would be different?
Well, kind of.
This would be worse in the first half and slightly better in the second. End result: Motown Massacre II.
Never in college basketball history have so many people been sent home unhappy. At least 50,000 Spartans fans amid the NCAA tournament-record crowd of 72,922 were taken out of the game almost immediately and never allowed to get seriously loud again.
The Spartans led once, 3-2. It lasted 19 seconds, until Green hit a 3-pointer and effectively signaled the very early beginning of the very emphatic end.
"It was a blur," Michigan State guard Travis Walton said.
The Carolina lead mushroomed to 10 after 4:04. To 15 after 7:03. To 20 after 9:38. It was a seal clubbing. The roaring crowd quickly turned into a Lions crowd, muted by watching another blowout of the home team in this building.
"We had to take care of business," Green said. "We came out focused and we came out firing."
It was the perfect night for the Tar Heels, whose defensive deficiencies wound up being the most overrated story line of the season. They won another title -- the program's fifth -- while simultaneously leaving hated Duke in the record books for biggest margin of championship-game defeat at 30.
For a while, that record appeared to be in serious jeopardy as the Spartans performed like Ohio State in a BCS National Championship Game. This could have been a 40-point bomb if Michigan State had submitted and North Carolina had kept the hammer down.
But since the Spartans couldn't hit enough shots or make enough stops to make a true game of it, Williams had the chance to empty his bench with more than 2:30 remaining. The Heels got a jump start on the celebration.
At the final horn, the oft-emotionless Hansbrough unleashed four years' worth. He jumped around like an 8-year-old on a sugar buzz, hugged his teammates like he'd been away for months, played to the Carolina crowd, danced like an arrhythmic dork and celebrated like a guy who had accomplished a lifelong dream.
"Nothing beats this feeling right here," Hansbrough said with one of the nets around his neck.
During "One Shining Moment," Williams watched with the other net in his left hand and a pair of scissors in his right. He leaned back against Lawson and Deon Thompson, and it didn't take long for the famous Williams water works to begin.
Eyes reddening, Ol' Roy wiped his hand across his face. Thompson patted his coach on the back. Suddenly, a TV cameraman violated Williams' airspace, coming in too close, and Williams politely but firmly put his hands on the guy's shoulders and backed him away.
Amid a flurry of third-person references on the podium, Williams declared that just because he has matched program patriarch and mentor Dean Smith's two national titles, the two do not belong in the same breath. He also allowed that this one probably is more satisfying than the first, which came as something of a surprise.
The one in '05 ended a 15-year quest for the hardware, emancipating Roy from Best Coach Without A Title territory. But as Williams pointed out, the degree of difficulty was probably higher this time around -- while the expectations were at least as high.
"In some ways, this one's even sweeter," Williams said.
That's because North Carolina had to work at it this time. Believe it or not.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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