- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

DETROIT | There are moments in the offseason when the latest keepers of North Carolina's basketball legacy receive reminders from those who previously donned the iconic white-and-baby-blue uniforms about how they are faring in their job.

All too often, the members of the 2005 national title team would not-so-subtly point out their role in securing one of the big banners hanging beyond a baseline at the Dean Dome, effectively declaring the current custodians of the Tar Heels' rich history still had work to do.

Not anymore. Not after Monday's 89-72 demolition of Michigan State in the national championship game.

Sure, North Carolina's triumph isn't surprising in retrospect. It was the fitting reward for the most talented team in the country. But it was a validation of a series of decisions - some made a year ago, others just in the past week.

Chief among them was the choice of forward Tyler Hansbrough and guards Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson to return for an extra season in pursuit of an elusive title. Hansbrough didn't bother with the rigamarole of entering his name in the NBA Draft, while the other three all opted to return to Chapel Hill to make one last run together.

“On coming back, sounds like I made a pretty good decision,” Hansbrough said. “Nothing beats this feeling here.”

But the zenith of the group's collegiate experience took more than showing up. It required learning from past errors and navigating a minefield of expectations coach Roy Williams tried to minimize from the start of the season.

No, the Tar Heels (34-4) didn't have the first undefeated season in Division I men's college basketball since 1976 as some fathomed they might. But they learned from early January stumbles against Boston College and Wake Forest, and a full-strength defeat at Maryland in February was a late-season hint of their vulnerability.

This was a bunch uninterested in a defining loss. Injured senior Marcus Ginyard kept tattered copies of the box scores from North Carolina's last three NCAA tournament losses in his locker, an omnipresent reminder of how prematurely the end arrived in the past.

So it was a different, more driven team this time around. Lawson's return from a toe injury in the second round reinstated the Tar Heels' pacesetter, and Carolina went on to win all six tournament games by at least 12 points.

There were no stunning losses like in 2006 against George Mason or late-game meltdowns as in 2007 against Georgetown. North Carolina never started slow, as it did in the 2008 Final Four against Kansas.

It was a methodical deconstruction by a team determined to avoid any reruns. North Carolina even went to the trouble to request the smallest of the available hotels to the Final Four. Rather than getting swept up in the hoopla of the event, the Tar Heels stayed just a few blocks from Ford Field and saved their enjoyment for after Monday's victory.

“That was one of the best things Coach Williams did - to make it like that,” senior Mike Copeland said.

“In San Antonio [in 2008], we stayed in a hotel that was real nice and ate at all the good restaurants. Here, we stayed down the street and we ate at one spot called Sinbad's. No offense to Sinbad's, it wasn't the best restaurant we've ever been to. I felt like it was all about business. We took care of business.”

In turn, the Tar Heels capped the four-year process since their last title in the best possible manner. Hansbrough and his three fellow seniors presided over a 124-22 stretch as North Carolina re-established itself as the best of college basketball's bluebloods.

They also got their title, the chance to talk back to their 2005 predecessors and a place in their Hall of Fame coach's mind as one of the most memorable teams of his career.

“They took Roy Williams on one fantastic ride, and it's something I'll never forget,” Williams said.

Soon, like after the 2005 title, he will make do without the talent who made this run possible. Hansbrough and Green are seniors, and it would come as no surprise if Ellington and Lawson departed for the NBA. Still, Ginyard will be back for a fifth season, and freshman big man Ed Davis will return.

Williams' maniacal recruiting will pay off with a new batch of high school stars arriving next season, when the Tar Heels will do what they believe they can do every year - reach the summit of college basketball.

“We're just going to try to get back here and do it again,” said junior forward Deon Thompson, who perhaps will be the only starter to return next season. “We're definitely going to have a talented team again next year. We'll be deep at almost every position. All you have to do is work hard, and you never know what's going to happen.”

After all, there's always room for another big banner in Chapel Hill.


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