Statistically speaking, over a large enough number of games this system works well. It is not the case that Carolina’s opponents over the years have (on aggregate) shot an inordinately high percentage from three-point range, and in a number of big games (such as the 1995 regional final victory over Kentucky), Carolina’s tactics baited opponents into simply shooting themselves out of the game. Moreover, in normal years Carolina’s opponents, tending to rely on a higher percentage of outside shots, have not gotten to the foul line nearly as much as the Tar Heels themselves.
But winning single elimination basketball tournaments involves not compiling the best results over a representative sample of games between two teams, but winning six individual games, with no room for error. The concern, then, (discussed briefly in the February issue of the IC Magazine and more extensively in Dean Oliver’s interesting book "Basketball on Paper"), is that the defensive strategy creates greater “variance” in a team’s results: i.e., higher highs, and lower lows. Such variance in turn creates a greater potential for being upset, on that one night in four or five when the other team is just sinking everything from outside.
That concern is well-placed. But, as Oliver also goes on to argue in his book, when you get to postseason play a team is not best served by going away from what it does best or trying to implement a different style of play or strategy. It’s better to concentrate on doing what you do best as well as possible rather than worry about the possibility that the other team might come up with a perfect arrow striking your Achilles’ heel.
The Wisconsin Badgers might not quite have played their perfect game Sunday afternoon in Syracuse, but they came close, fueled (of course) by outstanding outside shooting. It’s important to understand that the open shots Clayton Hanson in particular got were exactly the sort of shots that Carolina’s defensive principles tend to concede, shots created by looking inside and excellent ball movement.
Equally impressive was the outstanding play of Alando Tucker in the paint, who gave a variety of Tar Heel defenders fits. Add in some inspired shooting and driving by Kammron Taylor off the bench and the Tar Heels had three outstanding individual performances from the Badgers to overcome Sunday. The result? Improbably, Wisconsin was able to stay in this game right until the end, even though Carolina largely got the tempo it wanted and even though the Tar Heels played quite fluently themselves on the offensive end.
Indeed, Carolina needed (at least) five distinct stretches of inspired play in the second half to answer Wisconsin’s 16-0 run, rebound from a five point deficit, and then hold on to close the game out:
* Roy Williams’ decision to apply full-court pressure early in the second half after a made Sean May free throw yielded immediate dividends, as Jackie Manuel intercepted a poor Badger pass to set Rashad McCants up for the go-ahead three-pointer and bring Tar Heel fans back into the game.
* A few minutes later, after Raymond Felton had to go to the bench with a turned ankle, Carolina scored on three consecutive possessions, twice off pretty feeds from Sean May to Jawad Williams, to maintain a working lead during a time when Wisconsin was finding a good offensive flow as well.
* The Tar Heels then had to come up with stops on three separate Badger possessions in which the Big Ten outfit might have taken the lead between the five minute and three minute marks. The Tar Heels got a big hoop from Sean May to push the lead to 74-71 at a time when it felt like the next basket was essential for momentum, then got big free throws from Marvin Williams and then May to push the lead to 78-73 with just under two minutes to play.
* Carolina also needed a double-dose of heroics from Rashad McCants, who proved he still knows where the Superman cape is in his closet: first, with a block off of Hanson’s jumper (the first time Hanson appeared to hunt his own shot rather than simply waiting for the ball to get to him within Wisconsin’s offense), and second, with the clutch top-of-the-key three-pointer with a minute to play to give Carolina an 81-78 lead.
* Last but certainly not least, the Tar Heels needed to make free throws in the final minute. Raymond Felton made Bo Ryan pay for his slightly surprising decision to go into foul mode rather than play straight up defense down three with 56 seconds to play, sinking six consecutive free throws. As a result, Wisconsin never got the chance Villanova had Friday night, to have the ball in the final seconds with a chance to tie. As we saw in the other regional finals this weekend, that is a very, very good thing.
That’s a big-time performance in the mental toughness department, and it’s why these North Carolina Tar Heels so thoroughly deserve to be going to the Final Four. Five (long) years ago when Bill Guthridge’s much-maligned team erased a disappointing regular season with a thrilling run through the South Regional, I remember thinking that of all the Final Fours Carolina had ever been to, that one meant the most in terms of the sheer satisfaction I felt in seeing that group of players make something really good happen for themselves.
Well, the buzzer sounded in Syracuse Sunday afternoon, and back came that not-quite-forgotten rush of emotion, the kind where you want to high-five and hug your neighbor at the same time. The 2000 tournament run rectified just one frustrating season, but what happened Sunday night was even more meaningful and emotional given what the bulk of this team lived through three seasons, two seasons, and even one season ago. (In the inevitable contrast between the 8-20 season and off-court chaos on one hand and reaching the Final Four on the other, it’s tempting to forget what a long journey it is in basketball terms for a team to go from being 19-11 to being 31-4 just a year later.)
Yet make no mistake: while everyone associated with Carolina basketball has had St. Louis in the back of their minds, all year, it wasn’t preordained that it would happen. Having great players and a great coach isn’t enough to reach a Final Four -- you have to go out and get it done, on the court, by making the critical plays at the critical times.
That’s what the Tar Heels did Sunday, against an excellent Wisconsin team that gave an effort that would have beaten many, many high-caliber clubs. Their reward? Sean May collecting the regional MVP award, Raymond Felton getting his named chanted by happy Carolina fans who thought he should have made the all-region team, Marvin Williams hearing it from Tar Heel fans unsure whether to go with the traditional “three more years” or the more realistic “one more year,” Roy Williams being surrounded by photographers as he came to greet his wife Wanda after the game, and best of all, senior Melvin Scott wielding the scissors for the final snip that brought down the net in front of the UNC bench. (Jawad Williams did the honors on the other end.)
A great day, and a thoroughly deserved one as well. After everything the UNC’s program has been through since the last Sunday like this half a decade ago, there is reasonable ground for fans to say, “well done, anything that happens from here on out is gravy.”
That’s an understandable and I dare say healthy stance for fans to take, but I don’t think that’s how the coaches and players on this team will be thinking, once they’ve had time to properly enjoy this step along their journey. This team wants to win the national championship, and believes that they should have the chance next Monday night to prove they are the best team in the nation.
Doing so will require duplicating or bettering their Sunday performance against another tough Big Ten opponent in Michigan State, in a rematch of the 1957 national semifinal. Pundits will probably make the Tar Heels the “favorite” in that game, but arguably the Spartans own the most impressive pair of wins in the tournament, having knocked out Duke and Kentucky back-to-back in a manner that shows incredible resilience.
So get prepared for another tense tournament encounter come Saturday night. There will be a whole week for coaches, writers, and fans to ponder match-ups and tactics, but for the moment it should be enough to express two simple -- but not easily granted -- wishes for next weekend: First, that these Tar Heels enjoy every minute of the week ahead; and second, that they can collectively find the frame of mind that will allow them to give a performance that does themselves and their aspirations justice next Saturday night.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.