Nearly 'Black Friday' for ACC

North Carolina, considered by many as the most talented team in the tourney, barely kept the ACC alive after Duke and NC State were knocked out.

It came oh-so-close to being etched forever into Atlantic Coast Conference annals as "Black Friday."

Duke and North Carolina State, just moments apart, were bounced from the NCAA tournament by Big Ten Conference members Michigan State and Wisconsin.

But that was fine, because the ACC's big hammer – North Carolina, the consensus "most talented team in the country," even with its four regular-season losses – was about to take on a short-handed Villanova squad in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse.

Some 2½ hours later, already into Saturday morning, the Tar Heels were ready to carry their conference's banner into the Syracuse (East) regional final Sunday.

But they looked anything like the team that has not only been labeled "the most talented" but "the best" team – period – by those who just can't seem to accept the overwhelming evidence of why Illinois was the "best" team anywhere during the regular season.

Villanova, despite losing its best player (junior forward Curtis Sumpter) to a knee injury in its second-round win over Florida Sunday, didn't approach its game against North Carolina with anything resembling trepidation.

Even as the Tar Heels were coming from 10 points down late in the first half to 10 up with less than three minutes to go in the game, the Wildcats – most specifically, guards Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry – were the aggressors Friday night.

Roy Williams' team, on the other hand, never seemed in synch, even after building its seemingly goof-proof advantage.

Two of the players whose presence helped shape the consensus of thought that Williams has more "talent" on his roster than any other college program, junior Rashad McCants and freshman Marvin Williams, combined for 26 points after intermission.

But, ultimately, if the Wildcats had an extra 30 seconds, and at least one more favorable call – or non-call, if you caught Allan Ray being whistled for traveling after scoring a bucket that had apparently cut their deficit to a point with nine seconds to go – I might be writing about the third No. 1 seed to bite the tourney dust in a little more than 24 hours.

Those who have felt all along that North Carolina, and not 35-1 and No. 1-ranked Illinois, is the best team in college basketball aren't likely to have their belief in the Tar Heels too shaken. Seeing Sean May's, Rashad McCant's, Marvin Williams' and Raymond Felton's names on the same roster is awfully reassuring to those who equate how "good" a team is based on how many future NBA players its possesses.

If Roy Williams is coaching the best team in the country, it has three more opportunities to prove it on the court, with the next one coming Sunday against Wisconsin.

The Tar Heels lived to fight – uh, practice and play – another day despite a wobbly performance Friday. They can't count on having that same leeway the rest of the way.

In watching both Duke and Michigan State play in the first couple of rounds of the tournament, the latter appeared to be bigger, deeper in skilled players and just as determined and physically and mentally tough as the former.

And all of those elements were firmly entrenched in a second half that the Spartans dominated (the score was tied at intermission) as the Blue Devils frantically scrambled just to stay within striking distance before the Spartans prevailed, 78-68.

Even with three exceptional players (guards Daniel Ewing and J.J. Redick, along with center Shelden Williams) in its lineup, Duke overachieved this season.

But Friday night the Blue Devils were facing a team against which they needed the very best that those three players could give them. Ewing was outstanding but Redick's jumper, for the third game in a row, was off target and Williams was saddled with foul problems before he was disqualified after being pump-faked down low by Paul Davis with 2:41 to go. Davis converted the layup and ensuing free throw for a 69-63 advantage. And that was pretty much that.

After the Spartans had dispatched Duke, Kentucky used its marvelous depth – most specifically, its three 6-foot-10-plus post players – to make on-court life complicated for All-America (and All-Australia, we should probably add) center Andrew Bogut and had things more or less in control while beating Utah, 62-52.

Bogut scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds but got his points via eight of 19 (from the field) and four of 11 (from the free-throw line) shooting performances.

The next set of stats that will get this much perusal for Bogut will come after his exhibition game debut next fall for whichever NBA club drafts the sophomore, maybe No. 1 but certainly no worse than No. 3. And the latter is only a possibility if both freshman Marvin Williams of North Carolina and sophomore Chris Paul of Wake Forest also declare for the draft.

So it will be Kentucky vs. Michigan State (in Austin) and North Carolina vs. Wisconsin (in Syracuse) on Sunday for the final two slots in the Final Four.

Based on the way each played Friday night, both games should be expected to be tight throughout with the eventual winner not apparent until well into the second half.

And who'd have thought I'd be making that suggestion before Villanova and North Carolina tipped off late Friday night?



Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at FrankHoops.com

UCONN Playbook Top Stories