Not since March 2009 has North Carolina made the Final Four. That seven-year itch wouldn’t be seen as a cosmic failing at 345 of the 351 schools that play Division I basketball, but when you’re Carolina – which has graced more Final Fours (18) than any other program – it gets noticed
Those seven years mark the second-longest Tar Heel drought of the past half-century. To Roy Williams’ credit, he pegged the longer one without prompting. He’d left Dean Smith’s side in 1989 to coach Kansas. By 1991, his Jayhawks were in the Final Four. They faced, wouldn’t you know, North Carolina.
Said Williams: “I was trying to count up here, but I remember I was at Kansas. And all of a sudden in ‘91 we’re in the Final Four. Coach Smith said: ‘Man, it’s been a long time,’ because the last time I’d been to the Final Four was with him in ‘82. So we went from ‘82 to ‘91, and that was a long time for two old guys. I wasn’t quite as old then and my hair was black then, but so was yours.”
(He meant mine. Thanks for noticing, sir.)
Williams has taken seven teams to the Final Four. Only Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden and Smith have done it more. His final two Kansas teams made it; so did three of his first six Carolina teams. He won the 2005 NCAA title with the Carolina crew of Felton-McCants-May bunch he mostly inherited from Matt Doherty; in 2009 he won with the Hansbrough-Lawson-Ellington bunch of his cultivation. Not to get all sappy, but it isn’t March without an Ol’ Roy run.
“When you say you’ve been through this so many times, it sounds like I’m getting older than I think I am,” he said Thursday, speaking ahead of Friday’s East Regional semi against Indiana. “Every year you start out (with) big-time dreams for your team … Those dreams sometimes become more (like) reality the closer you get. I get excited about it. I love the NCAA tournament, the pageantry of it, the suspense. When you’re a really good team – and we’ve had some of those – and you go home really early, that’s not as much fun.”
That’s the sobering side of March. One of the greatest teams not to reach the Final Four was Williams’ 1997 Jayhawks, who’d lost only one game – in double overtime – before being unhorsed by Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen. His 2012 Heels were no worse than the nation’s second-best team until point guard Kendall Marshall broken his wrist against Creighton in Round 2. In the Midwest final, Carolina sans Marshall was beaten by Kansas. Small world.
With Michigan State gone, Carolina again looks like one of the two best teams standing. (Kansas being the other. It’s weird how those two move in lockstep. You knew Smith played on the Jayhawks’ 1952 championship team, right? And that, of Williams’ seven Final Fours, he has faced either Carolina or Kansas in three?)
The East Regional has lost Seeds No. 2, 3 and 4, meaning the Heels’ path has been cleared. Asked if he feels an increased pressure – what with Carolina having gone so long between Final Fours while hated neighbor Duke was taking two more NCAA titles in the interim — Williams said: “(You have to) do the best you can, not get too caught up in what other people are saying. Sometimes you have some breaks that really go your way.”
Whatever happens, it’s impossible not to wonder how many more March runs there’ll be for Williams. He’s 65. His recruiting has slipped to the extent that Carolina’s best players – Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson – are seniors, which didn’t used to happen. (Marvin Williams famously left Chapel Hill after a freshman season as a sixth man; he was infamously drafted by the Hawks.) The Heels have involuntarily ceded the one-and-dones to Duke and Kentucky. Of John Calipari, Williams said: “He recruits the same guys I do. He just gets them.”
There’s also the matter of the lingering NCAA probe into academic fraud involving several Carolina programs, Williams’ included. There’s no groundswell of rumors – not from any credible sources, anyway – suggesting this tournament will be Ol’ Roy’s absolute last hurrah. It might, however, be his last best chance.
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