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April 6, 2005

Tar Heels stomp out critics, live up to the hype

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
When I wrote a column last fall about the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series, it was cheesy, sentimental, and, in my mind, right on about how all of New England got an 86-year-old monkey off their back. Last night in St. Louis, another primate needed a new home as North Carolina coach Roy Williams finally coached a team to a College Basketball National Championship.

Yes, Illinois was ranked number one for four months straight, but UNC was the best team in the nation all year long. The only reason the Fighting Illini were ranked ahead of the Tar Heels was because of a lousy performance to open the year versus a good Santa Clara team back in November. This team opened the year on top and deserved to end it that way.

No player on the UNC roster was more clutch throughout the entire NCAA Tournament as Sean May was. His 26 points last night carried the Heels to a 75-70 title-clinching victory. The fact that the performance (which could have risen him a dozen spots in the NBA Draft, should he leave after this his junior year) came on his 21st birthday is even more fitting.

Actually, May is not even the best pro prospect on this team. In fact, the highest future pick likely came off the bench this year in Marvin Williams, the poised freshman who put in 12 points and seven rebounds as the sixth man; better numbers than most senior starters on the best teams in the ACC.

When you have a lottery pick coming off the bench, you are unequivocally stacked. And the most talented team in the nation did not let any one down this year, playing as one collective unit from October's Midnight Madness in Chapel Hill through a more literal madness on the floor at the Dome in St. Louis.

As for Coach Williams, he didn't have to be saddled with the "best coach never to win a title" moniker. Winning a championship in a respective sport is very hard, and I hold little against those who fail to emerge victorious at some point in their career. But Williams made the leap last night from great coach to near legendary. Who's the best without a ring? I'm sure Roy Williams is happy to never hear his name in that conversation again.

All year long, May has been compared with his father Scott, the National Player of the Year, who won a title in 1976 under Bobby Knight at Indiana. But the younger May delivered a performance and a season (17and 11 per game) to introduce the family to a new generation unfamiliar with his father.

And as always, credit goes to those not just on the sidelines last night, but some who watched the game on television. If it wasn't for Knight violating his no-tolerance agreement on violence at Indiana four and a half years ago, May, who lived in Bloomington, would have become a Hoosier and the Heels certainly would never have been in this situation. And also Matt Doherty, a terrible coach and even worse beard model, who, to his credit, got May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, Melvin Scott, Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel to come to Chapel Hill.

Those last three names deserve credit as well. Not only for their play in getting UNC to the title this year, but for persevering through their four years in college. Those three remember that, just three years ago, this team, coached by Doherty, went 8-20, including home losses to Davidson and the EA Sports All-Stars.

That second team is not a school. They were a pro team that got paid by schools to lose badly during the exhibition season in the fall. Scott, Jawad Williams and Manuel were eyewitnesses to that humiliating loss at the Dean Smith Dome. Less than three and a half years later, they're National Champions.

What an ascent it has been for Carolina, a rise made faster by the arrival of UNC alum Roy Williams two years ago. Williams was able to juggle the massive egos of this massively talented team. In the past, the college team with the most talent doesn't win it all. But Williams got this team, with about a half-dozen future pros on it, to mesh together, and to come to play when they had to.

Even as the Fighting Illini closed a 15-point deficit in the second half and had chances to make title-winning shots, every Tar Heel seemed assured and calm. UNC forced seven turnovers in the first half, coming out sharp, building up a lead that proved too much for Illinois to overcome.

What the Heels look like this fall is different. May, McCants and Felton, three of the four highest scorers for UNC this year (Jawad Williams was third and is graduating) are juniors, but they could all declare for the draft. And why not? Their final real-game impression left on NBA scouts was one that earned them a national title. Even Coach Williams said today that he expected McCants at the least to turn pro.

But for now, at least, UNC can celebrate. The biggest win in the careers of many of the best Tar Heels ever came last night, and fans all over the state can know that finally, a college team with all the preseason hype finally lived up to it.

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  • C-man on April 7, 2005 at 8:52 AM
    i do not like your writing style. It is so critical and you come off as being very haughty and arrogant. Could you please just stick to reporting and giving less of your opinion
  • Michael Bushnell (View Email) on April 10, 2005 at 12:44 AM
    Hey, C-Man, I'm sorry you felt that way. I also wish you had left your real name so I could discuss with you how you felt and how I could make the writing better.
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