April 1, 2005

North Carolina Will Be Tough to Beat in St. Louis

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When Syracuse and Kansas faced off against each other in the 2003 national championship game, all of America watched with the comforting knowledge that one of the country’s best college basketball coaches would finally win the sport’s top prize for the first time in his storied career.

We all know what happened. Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange narrowly edged Roy Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks in one of the most exciting title games in recent memory.

Following that game, Williams left Kansas, his home of 15 years, to return to North Carolina, his home in a previous life. In two seasons, he’s already made a fairly big impact, bringing his alma mater back to the Final Four. Two years ago may have been Jim Boeheim’s first national championship. This year is Roy Williams’ turn.

The man who Dean Smith calls “the best college coach in the country” isn’t the only reason that the Tar Heels will bring it home, though.

Take a look at North Carolina’s lineup, and you’ll see that it is indeed stacked. Led by Raymond Felton, one of the most electric point guards in the country, everyone is a scoring threat. Center Sean May, the emotional leader of the team, was the Tar Heels’ top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker this season. Rashad McCants has provided a spark since returning to the rotation from an intestinal illness, and is a scoring threat both inside and outside. Jawad Williams is just a pure shooter.

This that can defend pretty well too. North Carolina had 307 total steals heading into the tourney and held its opponents to just a .402 field goal percentage. The Tar Heels outscored their opponents by an average of 20 points per game. That is serious stuff.

North Carolina paraded through the regular season, barely breaking a sweat. Its only conference losses came to Wake Forest and Duke, both of which were much closer games than any other the Heels played this season.

Sure, Georgia Tech upset the Heels in the second round of the ACC tournament. Sure, Villanova and Wisconsin gave North Carolina sizeable scares in the Syracuse Regional of the NCAA tournament. But, as they say, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Good coaching can exploit adversity for positive gain. Williams is one of the best. That makes North Carolina unbelievably dangerous.

To be fair, there are three other perfectly capable teams going to St. Louis this weekend. Let’s start with the other No. 1 to make it, Illinois. The Illini also cruised through the regular season, winning their first 29 games before stumbling against Ohio State in the last game of the season. Illinois is good. Very good.

But Illinois is not very deep. In the team’s active rotation off the bench, there is a poor shooter, a streaky big man who avoids the inside post like the plague, and a couple of unproven youngsters. You can say all you want about the Illini’s “distance advantage,” but on college basketball’s biggest stage, going up against its toughest competition all year, a shaky bench can kill that positive momentum.

Being from St. Louis, E.J. probably thinks he’s the expert on this weekend’s action. That figures. E.J. thinks he’s an expert on a lot of things — and then he opens his mouth. E.J. is certainly not an expert on basketball. His affiliation with the sport came to an abrupt end in middle school, when he scored his the only two points of his playing career — on his own basket. Furthermore, the kid picked Illinois “because it’s in the Midwest.” So are Louisville and Michigan State, numbnuts.

And about Louisville and Michigan State. There’s no doubting the fact that the Cardinals have earned all the praise they received going into March. They have all the ingredients needed to be a contending team in the late rounds of the tournament — excellent shooters, unselfish team play, superb coaching. Louisville does not, however, have what it takes to be a national champion. The Cardinals can struggle on the defensive end, especially when Rick Pitino likes to make his occasional foray into a zone defense. If the defense isn’t creating enough turnovers, Louisville is in trouble.

It’s hard to look at Chris and not see a 10-year-old child. He makes inappropriate comments and noises at inappropriate times. He’ll sulk and whimper if you say something “mean” to him. His favorite type of humor is of the scatological variety. And he’s not exactly fully grown. Why did Chris pick Louisville? Because he likes the color red. Sure, he’ll say something about how the Cardinals have talent and depth, tenacity and drive, and a brilliant tactician in Pitino who can bring it all together. Does Chris even know what any of that means?

Michigan State has positioned itself as the surprise entry of the bunch. No one expected much of the Spartans once they were placed in a bracket that also contained the likes of Syracuse, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Duke. Well, call Michigan State “giant slayers.” The Spartans took out half of that vaunted quartet in a memorable Austin Regional, and arrive in St. Louis looking to prove that the team with the Big 10’s second-best record may just well be the best team in the land.

Except they’re not. Tom Izzo’s lineup has too many holes at too many key spots. There are too many players who are simply “solid” or are “overachievers.” The Spartans lack that critical go-to-guy who can be the centerpiece of Monday night’s “One Shining Moment” postgame clip.

Plus Kyle is rooting for Michigan State. That’s a treat. Kyle is straight out of the O.C., and I can tell you with pretty good authority, all those ludicrous things you hear about that spot on the map are dead on. This is a kid whose biggest concern on a given day is which pomade to use. That’s what the constant inhalation of all those chemical fumes will do to you. Actual knowledge about things outside of his own universe is beneath him … but he loves Matt Leinart. Do you remember the last time Kyle actually wrote a sports article that was about sports? There’s a reason for that.

So there you have it. Four strong teams, four storied programs, and the potential for one hell of a finish to the college basketball season. Every team has its advantages, but one is just a little bit stronger than the others when it counts. That team is Roy Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels, and its time is now.

Owen Bochner is a former Sun Sports Editor. In the O-Zone will appears alternate Fridays.

Archived article by Owen Bochner