That glimmer was rekindled with a 19-11 season last year and has been restored with the Tar Heels' emergence as a No. 1 seed in this year's tournament. UNC (30-4) boasts an astounding array of talent, with six likely future NBA players, and comes into Sunday's NCAA Regional final here with No. 6 seed Wisconsin (25-8) as the favorite to advance to the Final Four.
North Carolina has not reached that pinnacle of college hoops since 2000 when, coincidentally, it was joined by UW. Each team (both of which were No. 8 seeds that year) lost its national semifinal that season.
Before this season began, the question was whether the Tar Heels star-studded outfit could learn to share the basketball and develop into a cohesive team. UNC passed that test, with five players scoring in double figures, capped by junior center Sean May's 16.8 points per game.
"At the beginning of the season we put on the board: ‘It is amazing what can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,'" said junior swingman Rashad McCants, the team's second-leading scorer at 15.9 points per game.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has no plans to step aside for UNC's coronation when the teams tip off at 1:40 p.m. at the Carrier Dome.
"We go into every game confident," senior forward Zach Morley said. "When we get the opportunity, we'll take advantage of it and we just have to go in and play our style of basketball."
UW senior guard Clayton Hanson remembers watching the celebrations after the Badgers made it to the Final Four five years ago, and he recalled talking to some of that team's players about their experiences in the years that followed. However, he is not reveling in what he thinks the current UW team has accomplished.
"If you start thinking about what you've done and… start getting happy with that then you might get content," he said. "And we don't want this to end. I think five years from now looking back on it it is going to be pretty amazing. But in the moment right now we are worried about just playing North Carolina."
All season long Wisconsin has made a living in the post offensively, has been steady in the paint defensively, and has been strong on the glass, with a +3.9 rebound margin.
North Carolina's front line, however, will be the most challenging UW has faced this season. With May (6-foot-9, 260 pounds), senior Jawad Williams (6-9, 220), and dynamite freshman sixth man Marvin Williams (6-9, 230), UNC has a combination of strength and athleticism that is probably unmatched nationally.
"I think our advantages will be on the backboards and our front court as far as Marvin and Jawad and Sean," McCants said. "It's going to be tough load for [the Badgers], and getting those big guys in foul trouble and making them get deep in their bench."
The Tar Heels hold an impressive +7.9 rebounding margin this season and an exceptional +9.7 edge in tournament play.
"You have to keep a body on them on the boards," UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "Just be physical; as physical as they are or a little more. But you've got to do it without fouling. You've got to be able to move your feet and get around."
Pedal to the metal
For good reason, North Carolina's front court draws the brunt of the media spotlight, but the engine that drives the Tar Heels is point guard Raymond Felton, who UNC coach Roy Williams said was as close to a truly indispensable player as anyone he has had in 17 years as a head coach.
Felton directs an offense that averages an incredible 88.4 points per game, and often keys the Tar Heels' transition game with his quick decisions and deft passing.
The Tar Heels, however, had to play without their floor general in the tense final two minutes of their 67-66 win over No. 5 seed Villanova Friday, after he fouled out for the first time this season.
Felton, who averages 12.5 points and 6.9 assists per game, said his foul trouble against Villanova will not prompt him to take his foot off the accelerator.
"I know one way to play and that's to play hard and that's the way I play," he said. "It went a bad way last night but I'm not going to think it is going to be that way tomorrow. I'll go out and play the same way."
Tempo makes it happen
North Carolina has seen slower paced teams try to gear down the tempo many times this season. Likewise, Wisconsin has faced opponents — such as UW-Milwaukee, Michigan State and Alabama — that wanted to get out and run. And for the most part both the Tar Heels and Badgers have managed to keep the tempo right where they wanted it.
Something will have to give Sunday.
"We've got to just make sure we get guys back on defense and hopefully we can slow them down in transition," UW guard Sharif Chambliss said.
UNC gets defensive
As well known as the Tar Heels are for their high-flying offensive skills, it is easy to forget they play pretty good defense as well, allowing just 69.9 points per game, a low tally when UNC's fast-paced style is considered.
Improved defense has been a substantial element in UNC's success this season.
"The kids understand how important the defensive end of the court is," Roy Williams said. "I told them during the pre-season… I have never seen a team make it to the Final Four and definitely not win a championship that wasn't a real good team defensively."
An intriguing dynamic played out at the Carrier Dome Friday night. Whenever a score from the Michigan State/Duke Austin Regional semifinal was announced, the Wisconsin, North Carolina State and North Carolina fans in attendance all emphatically voiced their loyalties for the Spartans — or vehement dislike of the Blue Devils.
The Tobacco Road trio reserves little love for each other, even when their Atlantic Coast Conference brethren are playing other conference opponents in the Big Dance. Big Ten schools, on the other hand, typically take a universal pride in each other's success — except when they have to play against one another.
With Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin representing the Big Ten in the Elite Eight, and the Illini advancing to the Final Four with a win Saturday, conference pride is running high.
"With the league being represented the way it is, you always take pride in that," UW coach Bo Ryan said Friday. "You can tell how our fans reacted. Michigan State and Illinois, very competitive teams that we battled with, we battle with every year. And they get to play on. That's super. Three out of eight, that's not bad. I like those percentages."
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, were unperturbed by the knowledge that they are the only ACC school left in the tournament.
"The conference stuff has nothing to do with the NCAA Tournament," Jawad Williams said. "I could care less about the ACC winning or the ACC-Big Ten challenge… Those records and those wins are not going to help us now."
UNC certainly has more fans in Syracuse than UW, but the Badgers may receive a boost from the N.C. State and Villanova fans that stuck around for the whole weekend.
Confident Chambliss airs it out
After Friday's game with State, UW's Chambliss was good natured with reporters about his first half air ball of a 3-point shot. It certainly helped the mood that UW had come from behind to win, and that Chambliss had drained a key pair of triples early in the second half.
"I air balled!," he said. "I air balled! It was a bad shot… I shot an air ball and it's OK. We won."
UW forward Zach Morley, a native of Maryville, Mo., grew up a fan of the Kansas' men's basketball team when current UNC coach Roy Williams led the Jayhawks.
"It is just the whole Kansas program," Morley said. "I grew up watching them play and just really amazed how consistent they were throughout the years."
Williams said he did not recall crossing paths with Morley on the recruiting trail, but he acknowledged the 6-8 senior's impressive 50 percent 3-point shooting this season (28 of 56).
"After watching him shoot…I wish I had paid more attention," Williams said.
This will be the eighth time a No. 1 seed has faced a No. 6 seed in a Regional final. The one seed has won the last three such matchups and is 5-2 overall, dating back to 1986… This is North Carolina's third Regional appearance at the Carrier Dome. In 1983 the Tar Heels lost in a Regional final to Georgia; they advanced to the Final Four here in '97… UW would set a new program record for single-season wins with a victory Sunday.
What: No. 6 seed Wisconsin (25-8) v. No. 1 seed North Carolina (30-4) in the Syracuse Regional final of the NCAA Tournament. The winner advances to the Final Four to face the winner of the Michigan State/Kentucky Austin Regional final in a national semifinal Saturday.
When: Sunday, March 27 at 1:40 p.m. Central.
Where: The Carrier Dome (31,805) in Syracuse, N.Y.
Broadcasts: CBS will televise the game nationally. The Wisconsin Radio network will broadcast the game live.
Series notes: This is the first meeting between the two schools.