UNC sends message with Arizona rout
TUCSON, Ariz. -- A North Carolina spokesperson quickly popped his head into the media room less than an hour before tipoff to inform everyone that starter and second-leading scorer Brandan Wright and reserve Marcus Ginyard weren't playing because they were ill.
The Tar Heels were already without guard Bobby Frasor, missing his fourth straight game with a foot injury.
No shot. The Wildcats didn't show any signs of being ill, but they certainly played as if they weren't feeling well.
In what can be simply stated as the most declarative statement game by a possible title contender to date (giving a nod here over Wisconsin-Pitt and Florida-Ohio State ... you can debate on your own if you wish but those were both home wins), North Carolina crushed Arizona 92-64 at the McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, handing Lute Olson his worst home loss in his 24 years with the Wildcats.
"At halftime, I went into the locker room and said, 'I don't know this team,'" Olson said. "It's too bad. The stage was set for a great basketball game. It wasn't a great basketball game."
Well, once again, it depends on your perspective. For North Carolina, this was tremendous. Seriously, the Tar Heels were without three of their top nine players and didn't miss a beat. While Arizona was fumbling away its possessions (turning the ball over in four of the first five), the Tar Heels were sharing the ball like it was a clinic. The Tar Heels scored on transition, halfcourt, 3s, at the free-throw line, and with plenty of drive-and-dish dunks that continued into the final minute.
Putting this in perspective: Twice within the past 10 days, North Carolina has gone into a supposedly hyped-up, tough roadie and squashed the opponent (see a 22-point win at Clemson for the first example). Forget about this crew being dominated by freshmen and sophomores. This team knows how to step on the throat of a team and not let it breathe. Sure, the Tar Heels lost at Virginia Tech after being down 20-plus, but they still clawed back to lose by only six. And, no one said this team is infallible, let alone perfect.
"This shows what type of team we are mentally," UNC freshman guard Wayne Ellington said. "We can go on the road and take care of business and head back home. We're so deep that we have so many guys that can rotate in and are threats to score."
The businesslike approach is evident with the way this team travels. The Carolina players are all well-dressed, coat-and-tie and certainly looking as if they got a memo from NBA commissioner David Stern on the dress code. That kind of approach carries over onto the court.
"I've always liked to play in someone else's building," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "That doesn't mean I always win. But go back to when we were at Kansas for 15 years and no building has beaten us yet.
"We didn't jump off the building after Virginia Tech, and after we won at Clemson we didn't wait to see if someone was going to present us with a trophy," Williams said. "We're going to work our butts off in practice [Sunday] and we may practice harder since we won."
Alex Stepheson, just another member of the heralded freshman class, said there was no panic over Wright and Ginyard being ill. Nope. If they're out, simply trot out who is next.
That'd be a pair of freshmen big men in Stepheson and Deon Thompson, who combined for 24 points and 12 boards. Do you think that makes up for Wright's 15.2 points and 6.4 points a game?
"Everyone thought we would struggle on the road since we're young and inexperienced," UNC sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "This says a lot about this team."
One thing that it spells out loud and clear is that this team isn't immature. Sure, in terms of class and age they are a bit on the younger side, but come on, it's not like this is a crew that is learning how to play together on the first day of practice. The Tar Heels are 19-2 and it's nearly February.
That's why the age thing isn't an excuse for Chase Budinger, either. Olson said his star freshman is no longer a freshman in the game sense. He said he might as well be a sophomore. Budinger was saddled with early foul trouble, making his first half a wash playing five minutes. Budinger finished with 16 points in 21 minutes and grabbed seven boards. He picked up two second-half fouls but didn't get his fifth.
"We were careless with the ball from the start," Budinger said. "Maybe we were nervous and had butterflies in our stomach I guess. We didn't come out playing our game."
That's the truth. There was one sequence where senior Ivan Radenovic blew consecutive front ends of one-and-one free-throw situations, then missed a layup and followed that with a turnover that became two points for the Tar Heels. So, that was eight points the Wildcats tossed away.
So far there has been no mention of Marcus Williams, fresh off a one-game suspension, turning his right ankle and playing only 20 minutes as a result (Olson said he expects he'll be OK for next week). Do you know why? Because Olson said it didn't have an affect on this game since it was already long lost from the opening tip. When a team shoots 1 for 23 on 3s (that's 4.3 percent) and commits 20 turnovers and is outscored 16-2 on fast-break points there is likely no shot they're going to beat this Carolina team.
The reality is that Carolina showed Saturday it is easily one of the four best teams in the country, on track for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Arizona, though, seems to have lost its passion and purpose after looking so refined in handling UNLV, Illinois, Louisville, Houston and Memphis, Cal and Stanford during December and then outlasting Washington in Seattle to start the Pac-10. Since that game, the Wildcats are 2-5 with the lone wins being over Oregon State and Arizona State at home -- the two worst teams in the Pac-10.
As Stanford's twin towers Brook and Robin Lopez keep improving, and the Cardinal surge in the league to go along with UCLA, Oregon, Washington State and USC, the Wildcats are suddenly trying to climb out of a possible lower third group with Cal and Washington. The Wildcats aren't likely in danger of losing a bid just yet, but they're starting to head toward the difficult deep-seed range in the bracket if they don't start winning some significant games, beginning with next week's homestand against Washington State and Washington.
"We've still got some big games, some opportunities to get back on the right track," Arizona senior point guard Mustafa Shakur said. "But I don't want to take anything away from North Carolina. They played great."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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