March 25, 2008
CHAPEL HILL The word "focused" has been hammered like a railroad spike during the history of the NCAA Tournament.
Coaches want to see focused players. Players talk about focused teams. Certainly, the attention of the people who fill out brackets and watch games on television are focused intensely on the event.
With anything used too much, a phrase or word, it becomes hackneyed. "Focused" has become a cliché. The flipside is that clichés acquire such status because they have a measure of truth within them. We just hear it described the same way frequently.
North Carolina entered this year's NCAA Tournament focused. There you have it.
"I feel like we're ready," Carolina point guard Ty Lawson said. "This is the time of year everybody has been waiting for, so we are ready. We've been practicing hard, getting after it. If we don't practice well, we don't play well."
Carolina then went out and proved the point. UNC crushed Mount St. Mary's 113-74 in its opening game of the NCAA Tournament at the RBC Center in Raleigh, then drilled ninth-seeded Arkansas 108-77 in the round of 32.
"We were pretty doggone good," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We really were."
Junior swingman Marcus Ginyard said the Tar Heels have big goals and dreams, and they're coming to take care of business.
"We don't think winning two games in the NCAA Tournament is a huge success for us," Ginyard said. "Coach (Williams) just said in the locker room that we have another two-game tournament next weekend.
"That is what we're focused on right now. At this point, this game does not mean anything to us anymore. We're trying to get ready for our next opponent. This is not where this team wants to end up."
If all of this seems obvious, then look around at teams that had success during the regular season but struggled to regain the same form in the postseason. It happened to Carolina during Tyler Hansbrough's freshman year, when George Mason defeated the Tar Heels in the Big Dance.
The Heels had focus a year ago, when they made it to within six minutes of the Final Four before losing to Georgetown, but they lacked maturity and a level of toughness.
This team has been through a lot, and Carolina has used its trouble to get better. The Tar Heels are tougher, more poised. That has been reflected in the way UNC has handled the postseason, winning the ACC Tournament and overcoming three excellent efforts by its opponents, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson.
To their credit, the Heels came ready to play against 16th-seeded Mount St. Mary's to advance to the round of 32 and a game against ninth-seeded Arkansas, in which they played even better. Carolina jumped out to a 35-11 lead and connected on a staggering 67.7 percent (44 of 65) of its field goal attempts against the Razorbacks.
"We didn't come out slow," sophomore forward Deon Thompson said. "Sometimes when you see teams like Mount St. Mary's, you come out a little slow and not as prepared to play. But we came out from the beginning ready to play. We're going to need just as much intensity for (the next game).
"So just being into the game and playing hard was a good thing. I liked how we came out and were into the game."
Ginyard said the Tar Heels used the game against Mount St. Mary's to ensure that they were taking the proper approach mentally.
"Although it wasn't obviously the challenge that we were going to face (against Arkansas), we definitely wanted to use that game as a momentum-builder, to just get us in the groove of the NCAA Tournament," Ginyard said. "And I think that we did a great job of that. I think we did some good things that I think can carry over to the (next) game.
"We talked about the fact that we may have the toughest matchup in the second round, but everybody that's playing in this second-round game is playing a tough game. There are no easy games when you get to the second round, so we understand it's a huge challenge for us. I think that this team is focused and ready to take on that challenge."
Of course, the Tar Heels turned around and made it look easy in the second round.
There also is the practical matter of Lawson getting well. In the second half of the ACC title game against Clemson, he finally started to look like his old self, although Williams said the pure explosion that separates Lawson from so many players is not quite there yet.
"It's getting back to regular," Lawson said, "so it's starting to feel a lot better than it was. I felt like I had no worries about it (against Mount St. Mary's), little things like taking off on it."
Lawson zipped around and played tough inside against Arkansas, when he finished with 19 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
"Ty is the engine to this team," Thompson said. "He makes us go. I've never seen someone so fast with the basketball. To have him at full strength is a big thing for us."
UNC moved forward to the East Region semifinal in Charlotte against No. 4 seed Washington State. A victory there would mean a matchup against No. 2 seed Tennessee or No. 3 seed Louisville. The Tar Heels improved to 34-2 with the victory against Arkansas.
"Unfortunately for us, we couldn't do a whole lot to slow them down, defensively or offensively," Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said. "I think it's safe to say they're the best team we've played this year. I think that's OK to say."
As the questions started about the Sweet 16 and beyond, Ginyard said the Tar Heels may be peaking at the right time, thanks to a full year of preparation and dedication.
"That's what we work for," Ginyard said. "That's why we put in all the hours in the gym, all the time we spend in the locker room in meetings and watching film. Putting all that onto the court allows us to play well. Those are the rewards for how hard we work.
"That's not to say we cannot work harder. All of us and Coach Williams are always going to get back to the point that we can always play better, and we are never satisfied with the way we play, even when we played as well as we did (against Arkansas)."
ELLINGTON: ALL-AROUND THREAT
Part of what has made this Carolina team better is sophomore wing guard Wayne Ellington, and the way he has developed his all-around game.
He still sinks big three-pointers, but he also drives, he passes, he plays better defense, he rebounds, and he is making steals and assists.
At the ACC Tournament, Ellington averaged 19.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, and he had two blocks and four steals to go with eight assists. He deservedly joined Hansbrough and Ginyard on the all-tournament first team.
"He's been doing little things like getting to the gym, putting a lot of shots up before class and after practice," said Lawson, who is particularly close to Ellington. "He just wanted to keep his shot going the way it was and expand, going to the basket and things like that, so he wouldn't be like a one-dimensional type player.
"He's also playing a lot better on defense. He's getting steals, getting in passing lanes, and making it hard for his defender to score."