UNC gains valuable intelligence from trip to Final Four venue
DETROIT -- North Carolina can start booking hotel rooms downtown, charting its bus path to Ford Field, investigating restaurants that will accommodate the traveling party, and memorizing how one gets from the floor, up a Heartbreak Hill-like ramp, around a bend and down a hallway to the locker room at this vast dome.
The Tar Heels held a dress rehearsal Wednesday night for their likely April performance at the Final Four.
UNC, the clear No. 1 team and national favorite -- and one of the deepest title contenders this decade -- crushed Michigan State, the team formerly known as a Final Four contender, 98-63.
"We got a sense of the raised court and probably the nervousness will be gone [in April]," said North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson, who was in March form with a stellar line of 17 points, eight assists, no turnovers and seven steals. "The lights come at you when you're shooting on one side. It's definitely our goal to be back here. That's my main goal."
Reigning player of the year Tyler Hansbrough didn't show signs of a bum left ankle in scoring 25 points in 27 minutes, including making all 13 of his free throws. He said his left ankle is still bothering him a bit. He didn't play Sunday against UNC Asheville. But he and his teammates were able to get a feel for the cavernous building.
"We'll see what happens if we come back here," Hansbrough said. "We definitely discussed it. That walk up the hill, you made that -- beside that, everything is good. But we did all kind of [think] about it a bit."
How could they not? No other teams are playing games here this season. The NCAA tournament management team from the home office in Indianapolis was here for a week prepping for the Final Four. Only Michigan State and North Carolina got a chance to test the sight lines and shoot into the spacious backdrop.
"We did talk about it, but Coach doesn't like us discussing it much," Carolina guard Wayne Ellington said of Roy Williams and a return trip to Detroit. "But Coach did say that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll be back here. We got a great feel for the big arena. They can fit a lot of people here. We feel pretty comfortable here."
Ellington said the team got used to the depth perception rather quickly -- shooting 51.3 percent in the first half would do that.
"We got here early for shootaround," Ellington said. "But they've got to do something about that hill. Crazy."
If the only issue is the walk up the mountainous ramp, then the Tar Heels should be OK.
The Detroit Lions lost to the Tennessee Titans on Thanksgiving Day by 37 points. That's a combined 72 point-differential for the hometown teams in this Dome in one week.
Williams was gracious in his postgame address, saying that he would imagine Michigan State was tired after playing three games in four days at Disney over the weekend while the Tar Heels returned from Maui to play a home game Sunday against Asheville.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo echoed that point, admitting that the Spartans had dead legs in the second half. He said he knew the Spartans -- who played in the consolation bracket at the Old Spice Classic after getting upset in the first round by Maryland, but still left Disney at 2-1 -- were toast after 45 minutes of practice Monday. Izzo blamed himself for the scheduling; plus, the Spartans were at a decided disadvantage without senior center Goran Suton, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Thursday after missing the Old Spice Classic.
"I'll build off the first half, the NBA schedule of four games in seven days, I did that," Izzo said. "We're not in sync. We won't be until we get everyone back."
Izzo then apologized to the fans who came out on a "tough night."
Izzo was effusive in his praise for the Tar Heels. He said this might be the best team he has seen in his 25 years at Michigan State. This North Carolina team isn't as intimidating as the UNLV teams of the early '90s. It doesn't have the NBA star power of the Kentucky teams of the mid-'90s or even previous Carolina squads from the '90s. But it does have more talented depth in comparison to its current competition.
There was no drop-off Wednesday when Williams went to the bench. Freshmen Larry Drew made a 3-pointer and freshman Ed Davis grabbed boards (seven) and got to the line (6-of-8) -- and the Tar Heels are still without senior forward Marcus Ginyard. Ginyard said he's probably a few weeks away from coming back from the stress fracture in his left foot. Once he returns, Izzo said the Tar Heels would have the lock-down defender they need.
"What's going to beat us? Ourselves. We have all the talent in the world and experience," Ellington said. "We know what Coach wants, and the only thing that could beat us is ourselves."
ACC road games at Wake Forest, Duke and Miami won't be a walk. So postulating about an undefeated season is premature. The Tar Heels certainly can be beaten. But taking a loss in the regular season is one thing. Not making it back here to Detroit is another.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.