Carolina was the only school to send its band to this event, sending a message that these games were more important to this program at this time than to its three more highly regarded competitors. Carolina's players played that way too -- getting the lion's share of loose balls and aggression plays, and starting all four halves of these two games with nice spurts.
The Stanford win will probably be best remembered for smothering Tar Heel defense, some delightful passes from Jawad Williams and Raymond Felton for assists, one vicious baseline drive and dunk by Rashad McCants, and a surprising but entirely appropriate decision to cut down one net in the fabled Garden. According to senior co-captain Jonathan Holmes, the team had packed the scissors precisely for the scene that unfolded on courtside, as Matt Doherty made sure every player and staff member got their snip before going up and taking the rest of the thing down.
As Bill Guthridge said four years ago after another surprising Tar Heel championship in this event, hopefully this won't be the highlight of the season for this club. As Carolina surely makes the highest-ranked entry into the top 25 charts this week since U2's last album, it is abundantly clear that everything is on the table for this team, including an ACC title. Quite simply, at a time when overall talent level in college basketball is gently falling -- Kansas's personnel would hardly have merited even a top 15 ranking a decade ago in this sport -- Carolina's has shot up dramatically. Moreover, these "rookies" simply aren't run of the mill highly-rated players -- Carolina has three rookie starters with the sort of combination of talent and maturity that even a big-time school is lucky to see once per decade per position.
To be sure, there is plenty of room for improvement: free throw shooting, a couple of offensive slumps in each half letting Stanford put together runs, and a couple of instances of excessive reaching in come to mind. But Carolina got their hands on balls repeatedly, took charges, looked like they knew exactly what they wanted against the zone defense, refusing to settle for just jumpers, and yet hit a fair share of the jumpers that were available. Mistakes were made, but as Will Johnson confirmed after the game, those mistakes are a lot easier for both coaches (and fans!) to handle in a patient manner when you're playing with a double-digit lead as opposed to trying to scratch your way back into the game.
In fact, if there was any serious fault with this game, it was that the many Carolina fans filling the lower level weren't excited enough with a 20-point first-half lead! Could the old sin of complacency set back in again? Probably not from the players, if Matt Doherty or Jawad Williams has anything to do with it. Asked if this tournament victory made up for last season, Williams simply said "no," adding there is a lot of season still to be played.
And probably not, one would hope, from the faithful in Chapel Hill. Whatever happens Tuesday night in Chicago, this young team has more than earned itself a hero's welcome on its return to play Kentucky on December 7.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org