Unstoppable Tar Heels set a high standard

Staff WriterApril 7, 2009 

As North Carolina dashed past Michigan State and everyone else to the national basketball championship, the 2008-09 Tar Heels’ superiority was best described by Brad Greenberg way back on March 18.

A day before Carolina began its six-game NCAA Tournament blitz, the Radford coach sat on a small stage in Greensboro Coliseum and fished for precisely the correct words to explain his team’s first-round challenge. “Carolina’s not just a great program with great talent,” Greenberg said.

“They’re more than that. They’re what? Oh, what’s the word? They’re a firm — sort of like that Tom Cruise movie from a few years back. Once they get you inside [the arena], there’s no getting away from ‘em. You’ve just had it then.”

Greenberg’s team got sauteed the following day, 101-58. But in retrospect, the Highlanders dealt with Carolina about as well as its ensuing five post-season opponents.

The last team in the Heels’ way — 7.5-point underdog Michigan State with its thousands of fans at Ford Field — tried its best. But the eventual outcome, 89-72, essentially was settled before many of the green shirts could voice a decent cheer.

With juniors Deon Thompson and Wayne Ellington apparently hot the moment they stepped off the team bus, the Heels (34-4) had a 10-point lead inside five minutes and pushed it to 23 with 9:40 left in the first half. Ellington, the Final Four most outstanding player, finished with 19 points. Thompson’s nine came early, when the Spartans were trying to contain Tyler Hansbrough (18 points, seven rebounds).

Michigan State (31-7) had high hopes after an 82-73 win over favored Connecticut on Saturday. But a hope was about it. The defense Spartan coach Tom Izzo thought might slow Carolina and spark an upset was totally overwhelmed.

Carolina coach Roy Williams might have even sensed what was coming. In pre-game remarks to CBS-Television, he praised the Spartans freely but ended by saying, “They’re great. They’re playing better than anyone in the country — except for maybe one team.”

That “one team” very well may qualify as the best in ACC history, too.

It’s an issue that can be debated all spring and summer if need be, but the ‘09 Heels won their national title with such ease that the school’s 2005, 1993, 1982 and 1957 winners, plus Duke’s three champs of the 1990s, and even the mighty 1974 N.C. State, among others, have to impressed. Williams’ 05 team whipped Michigan State, 87-71 in the semifinals at St. Louis, but that game was closer than the final score suggests.

The valid argument is always there to be made that college basketball isn’t as talented and deep these days as years ago, when the top players routinely stayed in school for three or four seasons.

There’s no question that Carolina in large part won this title last summer when Hansbrough, Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson decided to return when spots on NBA rosters probably were within their grasps.

That’s not so much the point. More important to the matter is the fact that all four players did return. Under immense pressure to win each game, the Heels made the most of their opportunity to win what they could not at the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio. Some past ACC powers with more potential pro talent didn’t come close to matching this team’s achievement and certainly not in such a convincing fashion.

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