DETROIT — Less than 12 hours after beating Villanova in the Final Four, Wayne Ellington and some North Carolina teammates chatted over breakfast Sunday about what it was like to play in front of 70,000 fans at Ford Field.
Their reaction was typical of a veteran team making its return to college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It felt like it was another game for us,” Ellington said. “It didn’t even feel like we were at the Final Four. I think that’s good for us. We’re not out here shocked. We’re out here focused and playing our style of basketball and just having fun.”
That been-there, done-that confidence is about to be tested.
Sure, they’ve won four straight years at Duke’s famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium. They’ve won Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments, played under the weight of No. 1 rankings and met expectations by returning to the Final Four for a second consecutive season. But a title game? That’s something new.
“I think just because it’s a national championship game, you’re going to be a little bit more excited and maybe a little bit more nervous,” junior Deon Thompson said. “But once the ball is tipped everybody on the bench and in the game will be ready to play.”
Although that’s probably true, neither the Tar Heels (33-4) nor Michigan State (31-6) know for sure. And that undermines one of North Carolina’s biggest advantages on opponents all year — the experience that has come through steady team building after the 2005 NCAA title.
The senior class of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Michael Copeland has helped the Tar Heels to 123 wins and became the program’s foundation after the ’05 team lost its top seven scorers to graduation or the NBA. The next class brought in Ellington, Thompson, point guard Ty Lawson and one-and-done rookie Brandan Wright, a talented but unproven group that pushed to the NCAA tournament’s East Regional final in 2007.
That run ended with an amazing collapse as North Carolina missed 22 of 23 shots over a 15-minute span, blowing a double-digit lead in a 96-84 overtime loss to Georgetown.
The memory of that late-game fade drove last year’s squad. Hansbrough earned national player of the year honours as he guided the Tar Heels to a school-record 36 wins and a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio. But their season again ended with a stunning collapse, this time falling behind to Kansas 40-12 in the first half before losing 84-66.