Over and over again, Roy Williams has called this the “most criticized, least appreciated really good team I've ever had,” or one of several variations of that theme.
It's a complaint that really says more about the expectations facing North Carolina this season than anything else, and how long it took the Tar Heels to live up to them.
If they were held to a higher standard, it's because everyone always thought they could play like the best team in the country.
And now, they are.
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“People are starting to realize, hey, we're OK,” Williams said after Friday's 101-86 win over Indiana. “We've got a chance to do some things and we're playing pretty well.”
After blowing Indiana off the floor, North Carolina is one (ACC) game away from the Final Four and looking more or less unstoppable. To get there, the Tar Heels will have to get past sixth-seeded Notre Dame, a team they beat by a mere 31 points two weeks ago.
That ACC tournament win avenged North Carolina's loss in South Bend in February, during what turned out to be the Tar Heels' worst stretch of the season. It was losses like that one that created the kind of talk to which Williams so objected, and yet the Tar Heels have since proven it was entirely justified, that they were capable of so much better.
One way or another, an ACC team is going to play for the national title. And the Tar Heels are leaving little doubt at this point as to who the ACC's best team is.
“North Carolina played outstanding,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “If they play like that, even remotely close to that, then they're going to be very, very hard to beat. And I hope they do. Because Roy deserves it.”
With half of the remaining bracket fully stocked with ACC teams, the conference is going to have two teams in the Final Four for the sixth time and first since 2004, when Duke and Georgia Tech made it to San Antonio. The ACC is 16-3 in the NCAA tournament, 33-8 over the past two seasons and guaranteed to break the Big East's tournament record of 18 wins in 1985.
“It just shows we had the best conference this year,” North Carolina's Marcus Paige said. “I know the Big 12 was strong at the top, but we had the deepest league.”
There had been only one all-ACC regional final, in 1983. This March, half of the bracket in Houston is going to be an ACC playdown, between the Virginia-Syracuse winner and the North Carolina-Notre Dame winner – a four-team mini-ACC tournament to decide who faces Kansas, probably – and potentially a repeat of the Tar Heels' path to the ACC title in Washington.
Whatever mojo the Tar Heels captured during that ACC tournament is flowing unchecked now. The two disjointed first halves to start the NCAA tournament were replaced by a wood-chipper of a first half that saw Paige bang in four 3-pointers and Justin Jackson add 13 points. In the first half.
Even with a slightly sloppy finish, the Tar Heels took an 11-point lead into halftime. They have never lost a double-digit halftime lead in the NCAA tournament, and they didn't look inclined to do it Friday.
They were in the bonus before the under-16 television timeout, a rare curiosity that led to a North Carolina parade to the free throw line. More than that, the Tar Heels used the second half as an opportunity to demonstrate all the ways they can hurt you.
All five starters were in double figures midway though the second half, Paige setting a school NCAA tournament record with six 3-pointers. The Tar Heels' worst offensive set was a two-on-none breakaway, a situation they botched twice. Five-on-five, they were unstoppable.
There’s a West Philadelphia cheesesteak joint, Abner’s, that gives out free cheesesteaks when Penn or Drexel scores 100. The Tar Heels hit triple digits with 34 seconds to go. Some of their savvier fans might want to wander by 38th and Chestnut and ask if the same deal applies for North Carolina, since they’re going to be there until Sunday watching a team that is surely appropriately appreciated.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock