Seniors still focused on bigger prize
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina won the ACC title outright, just as it was projected to, by beating nemesis Duke on Sunday.
All is right in the world. But the path to this title hardly went according to script.
The Tar Heels were anointed to be invincible in the preseason by many of us in the media. Clearly, we were wrong. They were one of the elite teams, but they weren't unbeatable. Sure, they looked to be untouchable when they stormed Detroit's Ford Field for a warm-up to the Final Four in early December by wasting host Michigan State.
But so much has happened since then that made the Tar Heels a contender for the title with a collection of other teams like Pitt, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Louisville and possibly a few others.
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"I like the way it is now," said Carolina senior Bobby Frasor after the Tar Heels' emotional 79-71 victory at the Dean Smith Center and a lengthy senior speech session that was capped off by a choked-up, teary-eyed Tyler Hansbrough, who addressed what each family member and Carolina coach and player meant to him during his storied four-year career here.
"When you're out in front, as the leader of the pack, everyone is gunning for you," Frasor said. "Now there is parity with a number of other teams rising to the top. It should make for an interesting March and April."
Hansbrough added that it seemed like it's been a different No. 1 each week.
"You never know who the best team is week to week," Hansbrough said. "We'll see what happens at the end of the year."
That statement alone should provide insight into why the NCAA tournament is better off being relatively wide open than some sort of expected coronation. The Tar Heels might ultimately win the title, but the path to the championship is better off on gravel than a smooth, paved road.
"It wasn't unfair [to put us high] because we were in the Final Four and everyone was coming back and there was a lot expected of us," UNC guard Ty Lawson said. "The way the media portrayed us was that we were a giant and we wouldn't lose a game. That's tough to stand up to. We did our best and we still won the ACC championship."
The Tar Heels' setbacks and flaws have made this season even more intriguing.
UNC's nightmare scare happened in the preseason, when Hansbrough was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right shin. He also suffered a left ankle bruise. He ended up missing a total of four games.
It was bumpy and definitely not the way we wanted to start out. But we showed some toughness by the way we came back.” -- UNC's Tyler Hansbrough
North Carolina's depth took a major hit early in the season when freshman forward Tyler Zeller went down in Week 1 with a broken left wrist. Zeller would return in mid-February but clearly wasn't the same contributor.
The most significant long-term hit was suffered by senior forward Marcus Ginyard, arguably the team's inspirational leader and best perimeter defender, who couldn't play more than three games because of an injured left foot. Ginyard is seeking a waiver to play as a fifth-year senior in 2009-10, but his importance to this team was felt when Frasor called up Ginyard during pregame introductions to be recognized as part of the senior class, even though he will likely return after his classmates leave.
There was a suspension to reserve Will Graves in early February for the remainder of the season.
And then there were (hold your breath) two losses to start the ACC schedule, against Boston College and at Wake Forest.
"It was bumpy and definitely not the way we wanted to start out," Hansbrough said. "But we showed some toughness by the way we came back."
The Tar Heels' mortality was revealed with their 0-2 ACC start. The chase for the title didn't just change with the two losses. It was altered by the defensive warts the Tar Heels showed when guards like Wake Forest's Jeff Teague, Boston College's Tyrese Rice, Maryland's Greivis Vasquez and Miami's Jack McClinton were able to get where they wanted against the Tar Heels' defense for highly productive numbers.
"A lot of people thought we had a lot of question marks then," said Lawson of the Tar Heels' 0-2 start (they also lost at Maryland in overtime on Feb. 21). "But the ups and downs are going to make us better in the long run."
Frasor said Carolina coach Roy Williams calmed the team down immediately in the locker room after its loss to Wake Forest. He referenced a previous team that had started winless in the ACC that ultimately won the conference.
No one seemed to fret.
"We knew we would bounce back and come together," said Carolina senior Danny Green, who broke Sam Perkins' school record with 116 career wins. "We definitely made it harder on ourselves and put ourselves in a hole. When everybody has all eyes on you, you can't make mistakes. It's like the end of the world for your team. But we just continued to play basketball."
Hansbrough was solid. Wayne Ellington hit his stride and was knocking down 3s at will. Role players Deon Thompson and Ed Davis found their niche inside. Lawson reached another gear to elevate his game and his team during the stretch run to the ACC title.
Lawson was nearly derailed this week when he jammed his right big toe. He said he was told by doctors that he must have broken it "a while ago" and it was "stuck in the muscle and it became tough to move." Lawson said it was very painful, but with a few more days to rest before the top-seeded Tar Heels play in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament against either Virginia Tech or Miami, "I should be 100 percent."
Offensively, the Tar Heels aren't having any issues. Frasor said they still let teams score too easily at times, as was the case for Duke in the first half Sunday. But all is well now for Carolina again.
The home season ended for Hansbrough, Green and Frasor on Sunday. They clinched the ACC title outright, cut down the nets and enter the next phase of the season, when they chase an ACC and NCAA tournament title.
Hansbrough had a hard time wrapping his mind around the magnitude of his home career ending, and knowing that his number will hang from the rafters next to the jersey of Michael Jordan, who happened to be in the house Sunday.
"It's mindboggling to be honest," Hansbrough said. "I used to look up there freshman year and always see those spots and pick out Jordan and [Antawn] Jamison and all those players that played here."
Now his jersey will be up there, as well. But Hansbrough didn't return for his senior season to see his jersey retired, or to just win the ACC. He came back to win a national title and finish school, because he loved being a Tar Heel.
Now the task is at hand, even if the journey from October to March wasn't as smooth as predicted.
"There were people who doubted us but we knew we'd be fine," Hansbrough said. "We knew what we needed to do to win the ACC. Now we just need to concentrate on winning the ACC tournament and the big tournament."
Let the chase begin. Carolina is in the mix. But for the good of the event, the Tar Heels are hardly the only favorite.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.