Surviving the Past

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – No. 1 seed North Carolina enters this weekend's Sweet Sixteen as the lone heavyweight in terms of NCAA Tournament experience, and it's not even close. But with back-to-back devastating losses in the Big Dance, will those nightmares provide a path to glory or a free fall into madness?

Consider this: North Carolina's three counterparts in the South Region – Gonzaga, Syracuse and Oklahoma – have a combined 62 games of NCAA Tournament experience in their starting lineups. Those statistics are generous, as well – the Bulldogs' Josh Heytvelt played a total of 14 minutes in three games during their 2005-06 postseason run.

The Tar Heels' first five boast 59 games of action in their own dancing shoes.

"That's a lot of games," Deon Thompson said during Thursday's interview period at FedEx Forum. The junior forward has played in 11 NCAA Tournament games during his career.

A lot of games, indeed. Especially considering that as of seven days ago, Syracuse's starting five had combined to play as many minutes in the NCAA Tournament as the large majority of their fans – zero.

But the trouble with experienced talent is that pressure tends to become parasitic. If you possess NBA talent, the longer you stay around, the more is expected from you.

"There's a lot of hype for Carolina," Heytvelt said. "The fans don't expect anything less than a championship from those guys. And to have a little bit of pressure off the back to come in and be able to play a little bit looser, it's kind of a relief."

Ty Lawson disagrees with the pressure argument. The junior point guard believes that this North Carolina team has been saddled with unrealistic expectations all season long, so the pressure is old hat. The Tar Heel fan base wanted a national championship in October. Six months gives you plenty of time to get used to just about anything.

If there's one thing that's working diligently to creep into the minds' of this current bunch of Tar Heels, it's the lingering putridity of past NCAA Tournaments soured.

If you want Lawson to grimace, don't step on his big right toe, just mention the 11-point collapse to Georgetown in the Elite Eight two years ago. If you want Danny Green to struggle with words, don't mention his shooting slump, but rather the 40-12 spot that UNC gave Kansas in last season's Final Four.

But each of those losses provided experiences that Roy Williams cannot teach on a wipe-off board. For Georgetown, it was about learning that every possession counts. For Kansas, it was about understanding that simply showing up and having the country expect you to win isn't quite enough.

"It's very beneficial to go into a game and already know what to expect and to know the environment and the process, such as long days like this one with the media and with two practices," Thompson said. "And even when it comes to game time, if you do get down early, you know that it's a long game and that you can fight and battle back and pull out a win."

Lawson agrees.

"We've been here before," the junior point guard said. "We know what to expect. We won't panic during big runs that other team's have – like the LSU game [last Saturday]. They had a big run at the beginning of the second half and we didn't panic like maybe we would have in the past."

While the debacles to Georgetown and Kansas have slowly risen from the dead and slipped into articles as the Tar Heels methodically approach the grand prize that awaits in Detroit, it's important to note that this North Carolina squad is in its current position because of those losses. Sometimes the learning process is brutally hard, but it is necessary.

"Because of our experience and our maturity, we know that the game of basketball is a game of runs," Green said. "And we know that if we stay focused and come together at the right time, then we'll survive and advance."

The late Jim Valvano got it right. It is about surviving and advancing. It's not about an ACC-best plus-18.1 scoring margin or Lawson's ridiculous 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio or even Tyler Hansbrough's ACC scoring record.

On Friday night, those statistics become meaningless and all that's left is how each team reacts during 40 minutes – or more – of intense action. How you respond in a stressful situation is largely dependent upon your understanding of said situation, and the Tar Heels are hoping they finally have that market cornered.


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