A Return to Glory?

DETROIT – Welcome back to the Motor City. The last time we left Ford Field, North Carolina was sitting at the pinnacle of the college basketball world after dismantling two top-15 teams in an eight-day stretch by a combined 50 points. Things haven't been quite the same since, but UNC is showing signs of returning to that lofty height.

As soon as Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green elected to forgo the NBA Draft last June, the expectations placed on this North Carolina program were downright absurd – talk of an undefeated season saturated the radio waves, newspaper pages and Internet message boards.

And when the 2008-09 preseason AP poll unanimously picked UNC No. 1 – the first and only time that has happened – it was obvious that the snowball effect had delivered an iceberg down the quaint streets of Chapel Hill. But a funny thing happened on Dec. 3 in this very building – North Carolina quite possibly surpassed those irrationally deranged prospects by routing No. 12 Michigan State, 98-63, a mere 92 miles from its home campus in East Lansing.

"I think it's potentially the best team we've played against over the years," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told reporters on that snowy night in Detroit. "… They're definitely one of the best teams I've seen in my 25 years at Michigan State."

The Tar Heels were 8-0 and seemingly invincible, outscoring their opponents by an average of 30.4 points per game, while drilling 51.4 percent of their shots and holding their challengers to 37.4. Granted, there were some lesser-known schools on that early stretch of schedule, but Kentucky, Oregon and Notre Dame also joined the Spartans in embarrassing losses.

But then fall semester finals arrived at North Carolina and a 10-day exam break proceeded to do what no team had done in the previous three weeks – make the Tar Heels mortal again. The 40 minutes of high-level, burning-intensity play that had been on display through eight games was replaced with a more relaxed, sometimes overconfident model.

UNC managed the remainder of its nonconference schedule unscathed, but fell to a 0-2 start in ACC play after losses to Boston College (85-78) and Wake Forest (92-89).

"Coach Williams always says that some of the guys got fat and happy," senior guard Bobby Frasor said on Friday. "And even looking back on it at the time, Michigan State wasn't full strength when we beat them. Notre Dame, it turns out, wasn't as good as the top-10 team [people thought] when we beat them.

"So those wins that we had early didn't look as impressive as they did, so I guess people were building us up bigger than what we were. To have a couple of losses early on kind of humbles you, but at the same time, it was good for us."

What followed was a bumpy ACC road in which two more defeats were magnified exponentially and tough road wins were scrutinized ridiculously. Expected contributors on the Tar Heel roster missed 82 games of action due to injuries and suspension, but while other programs were commended for overcoming their adversity, North Carolina received no such reprieve.

So it comes as no surprise that after a four-game tear through the NCAA Tournament – UNC is winning by a 22.5-point margin, shooting 50.4 percent and holding their opponents to 39.8 percent – that the Tar Heels are the ones that endured a chorus of questions on Friday about how they felt as the overwhelming favorites to take home the 2009 national championship.

With Hansbrough and Ellington positioned in the spotlight behind a NCAA dais and nearly 100 media personnel onsite and millions of fans watching on television, a reporter asked about their role as favorites here in Detroit, considering all of the difficulties Michigan State, Connecticut and Villanova have encountered during their road to the Final Four.

UNC's four-time All-American pointed out his program's own share of adversity throughout the season, but it was the Tar Heel's smooth shooting 2-guard that hammered home the reality of the situation.

"I guess you're saying that people expect us to be here," Ellington replied. "In a way, you know, we always had those expectations. That's part of being a North Carolina basketball player. People have those expectations of us. This is what we work for. So, we don't mind being the favorites, we don't mind people saying we're supposed to be here, because this is what we worked so hard for."

Roy Williams nearly echoed his junior's comments, saying that while it's nice to occasional wear the underdog tag – such as UNC did during the '05-'06 season – being expected to win is a much more alluring compliment.

"You have to prepare every day," Williams said. "You have to do the job. You can't be too concerned about people saying things, particularly if they don't really know what they're talking about."

Despite North Carolina's last three opponents connecting on more than 44 percent of their field goals, the Tar Heels believe that they are better defensively now than they were four months ago.

"I think so – I think we're pretty close to that," Green said when asked if this team is playing as well as the last version that arrived at Ford Field. "If not, better than that. I think defensively we're making big strides. We're doing a lot better defensively and talking and helping each other, and I think that's going to be key, because you're not going to win any games without playing defense. We can score and we've shown everybody that we can do that, but you're not going to outscore everybody."

North Carolina may very well be the favorite this weekend in Detroit, but to heap too much praise on this group of kids is a slight to the other solid programs joining UNC in the Motor City. And while no question is as comical as the NCAA's use of a burning tire for its tournament logo, inquiries about this season being a failure minus a national championship are certainly close.

"We don't have to have a national championship to validate our team, because we're here in the Final Four two years in a row and we've had good records," Lawson said. "But [a title] would put an exclamation point on the season."


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