The questions about the roster full of JuCo players made their way into the NCAA press conferences last weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, forcing their head coach to defend his squad's makeup. After all, he rose up through the junior college ranks as well.
"I like guys that have had to ride on 15-passenger vans," Buzz Williams said on Saturday. "I like guys that when they order they just use a number. ‘I'd like No. 2, the combo meal No. 2.' I like those kind of guys. I think recruiting, as things have evolved, tends to spoil kids. And within the culture that I coach in on a daily basis, spoiled kids really struggle with dealing with me."
The rallying cry for the Golden Eagles has been their level of toughness and determination to persevere. Let's be honest – this collection of players could have easily vanished in the junior college circuit with a mention in the local newspaper.
"We're always fighting to show what we can do,'' Johnson-Odom said. "We've gone through a lot to get in this position.''
On Tuesday, UNC head coach Roy Williams described some of the junior college transfers that played under him at Kansas as "playing with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder that things didn't go as smoothly as perhaps they wanted to, whether it was the level of offer they got or somebody said, ‘You can't do that now, you've got to go here and do something else first."
But after knocking off sixth-seeded Xavier on Friday and third-seeded Syracuse on Sunday, Marquette has become a trendy pick to upset North Carolina due to their physicality and toughness. Rick Jackson (13.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) had been a steady post presence for the Orange all season long, but the Golden Eagles swarmed him with double- and triple-teams and held the 6-foot-9, 240-pounder to just seven points and four rebounds.
There's no denying that Marquette is long and athletic and willing to rumble if the situation calls for it. The statistics, however, prove that inconsistency has been an issue all season long. In Big East conference play, the Golden Eagles rank 14th in field goal percentage defense (45.6), 11th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (34.8) and ninth in rebounding margin (plus-0.4).
Marquette's roster deserves credit for rising through the chaos that preceded their current success, but to place too much emphasis on those difficulties can undermine the accomplishments of players that were elite-level high school stars that had their academics in order.
While Johnson-Odom's game in high school may not have caught the eye of college recruiters, Kendall Marshall stood on the opposite end of the spectrum. Columnist Rick Reilly penned an article in 2002 on Marshall being tabbed the nation's top prospect in the fifth grade.
"It's hard to imagine being under that kind of microscope, and then to commit to North Carolina before he ever plays a game as a sophomore and every game he plays that other guys is going to say, ‘Yeah, you're going to North Carolina, but I'm going to kick your rear end,'" Williams said of Marshall.
The challenges for both sets of players have been unique, but toughness has been required for everyone involved with Friday's matchup. In fact, the most telling toughness stat of all heavily favors the Tar Heels.
In games decided by five points or less this season, Marquette is 4-7. North Carolina checks in at 11-2, including a string of eight straight. Bravado aside, toughness can only truly be measured when it matters most – at crunch time.
"Whatever ‘it' is, they've got it," Roy Williams explained to reporters on Tuesday. "They can raise their level of concentration. They can focus and not be discouraged by one bad play. We've talked all year long about the next play."
For a team boasting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup, North Carolina's ability to play its best ball in the closing minutes of games has been a shocking development after the debacle of the '09-10 season.
"Down the stretch I think this team has always been great," Zeller said. "We don't really care who ends up scoring the winning basket. Defensively, I think we do a great job in the last four of five minutes, but down the stretch, I think we've very poised and we can do a lot of things to find a way to win."
There are different definitions of toughness that will be printed in the days leading up to Friday's 7:15 p.m. tip between North Carolina and Marquette. Regardless of who wins the war of words in the media, the final verdict won't be handed down until the game clock plummets toward triple zeros around 9:30 p.m., and there's a reason Tar Heel fans will feel confident in those final moments.