— OIT - The North Carolina Tar Heels are the only players to arrive at Ford Field this week with any shred of Final Four experience. At first, that sounds like a tremendous advantage. Then coach Roy Williams reminds you what that experience was like, with his own unique interpretation of the situation.
“I’ve got some crazy sayings and one of them is that you can’t go out there and tiptoe through the tulips,” Williams said Friday. “You have to be ready to plant your feet and make a stand. Last year we didn’t do that. I’m hopeful they understand. Hopefully, they’ll be ready to go [Saturday] before the referee throws the ball up.”
So now we know what the Tar Heels were doing during their 84-66 national semifinal loss to Kansas last year in San Antonio. They were tiptoeing through the tulips as they fell behind 40-12. And, hard as they might have tried, they never fully recovered.
Before they knew it, Tyler Hansbrough and the other Tar Heels were packing those tulips for their return to Chapel Hill, heading home without the chance to play in the national championship game. If there is any lesson to be learned as the Tar Heels prepare to play Villanova at the same stage of the season, Williams hopes it is about attitude and focus.
At this point in the season, it’s imperative to bring both to the table.
“I’m positive that I’ve said it one time, and it may have even been twice, but no more than twice, that I’ve reminded our guys that last year we were happy to be here,” Williams said. “When we went out against Kansas, we looked around and said, ‘My goodness we’re in the Final Four.’ They hit us right in the mouth. It took us 15 minutes before we realized we were playing a game.”
It’s safe to say the Tar Heels understand what they did wrong. They’ve been reminded over and over this week. They’ve been asked about being the favorites. They’ve been asked about the expectations that have weighed on them all year long. And North Carolina’s main men have been grilled about their motivations for passing up the NBA and returning for one more season.
Hansbrough, the four-time, first-team All-American, agreed it would have been disappointing to return to school and not get back to this point.
“Definitely,” he said. “When we knew everybody was coming back, our team had high expectations and goals to get back to the same position we were last year. That was kind of our mindset the whole year.
“And I think [the Kansas loss] was a motivating factor for us the whole offseason. It definitely was not the way we wanted to end our season last year. We felt like we came out and didn’t have our best performance, that we didn’t play like Carolina. When we did come back, we didn’t have enough energy to pull it out. It was very frustrating for us.”
Kansas coach Bill Self, named Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press on Friday, understands how the Carolina players could have used the loss to the Jayhawks as motivation during the offseason. But Self, whose team went on to beat Memphis for the national championship, figures that game is the furthest thing from their minds this weekend.
“You can use that as motivation to be a little more prepared,” Self said. “Roy may say we need to show what we can do on a the biggest stage. But I can’t believe Carolina really needs that. I wouldn’t use it as motivation.”
Williams has worked hard this week in an effort to downplay the angle that Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green rejected NBA overtures last spring for the sole purpose of returning to win NCAA rings.
Williams says Hansbrough stayed because he “loved college life and college basketball.” Williams said he talked to 24 different NBA teams and not one indicated Lawson would be a first-round pick. “So I gave Ty and his family that information.” Ellington and Green were told they “could be drafted in the second round.”
“When the decision was made for them all to come back, I called in all three of the kids,” Williams said. “Please understand, I said. If you decide to come back, it’s not gonna be about you. I’m not gonna get you 30 shots. I’m not gonna try to figure out how to make you the leading scorer.”
It was all about being part of a great team, Williams said. If that couldn’t be their focus, Williams told them, then head for the NBA.
When everyone did decide to come back, it was obvious they had a chance to redeem themselves. To do that, they have to eliminate the mistakes they made in San Antonio
“I didn’t know how big of a deal it was,” Green said of the 2008 Final Four. “We got caught up in a lot of the outside things going on, the distractions. This year we’re here to take care of business. We know what it’s about and I think that gives us an advantage over other teams. I think we were just satisfied and happy to be here.”
That first trip can be overwhelming. It is natural. There are the lavish NCAA dinners, network television interviews and the big arenas. Even the huge crowds at Friday’s public practices can be intimidating. None of it even closely resembles the regular season routine.
“When our guys come in here [Saturday] night, they will never have seen anything like that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Today’s practice is a good start. We talked about that, how to handle the distractions around us and try to keep our concentration. We talk about [the court being] 94-feet by 50-feet.”
The Villanova players are hoping to take a cue from their coach.
“Everybody knows Coach Wright is smooth, calm and collected,” forward Dante Cunningham said. “He seems never to be rattled, regardless of what’s going on. I think that’s where our team gets it from. When we’re down, when things go wrong, we’re cool and never in a panic.
“To be in a first Final Four, I know I’m nervous. I know I’m excited. But you definitely have to keep it in perspective.’’
And you can’t tiptoe through the tulips. Just ask the Tar Heels.