Today is suppose to be a good day. The weather is getting warmer, the baseball season is up and running, even the wife is getting nicer. Today though, is not a good day. Today is when North Carolina will win their second championship this decade.
Don’t get me wrong, Michigan State is a fine team and they are good enough to pull off the upset, but let’s not kid each other. This Carolina team is a team on a mission. They are ripping through the competition, including three easy wins over top-10 teams like Gonzaga, Oklahoma and Villanova.
I haven’t seen a team breeze through the tournament this easily since the ’98-99 Duke Blue Devils.
Of course, I know what you are going to say…that Duke team lost in the finals to Connecticut. You are correct, but there’s a difference between that team and this team. That Duke team had only two upperclassmen (senior Langdon & junior Carrawell) who played in the team’s eight-man rotation.
For the Tar Heels, six of their top seven players (based on minutes in the tournament) are either juniors or seniors. More importantly, all of them have been through this before in last year’s final four.
The point of all this is not to predict a winner in tonight’s championship game. We’ve tried this whole “predicting” thing and it hasn’t worked out well for us.
Instead, when I watch this Carolina club tonight, I can only think back to the incoming recruiting class in the summer of 2005, particularly Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts.
Now let’s be clear, a single player doesn’t make a team. Hell, you can easily argue that Hansbrough is only the 4th best player on his team and the ’06 Carolina class that brought in Lawson and Ellington was more important.
However, when you look at how the fate of Duke and Carolina has flipped-flopped this decade, no two players better represent what went right for the Tar Heels and what went wrong for the Blue Devils.
Both McRoberts and Hansbrough were five-star power forwards. McRoberts was a little taller, a little wider and was rated number one in the country at PF (No 2 overall). Hansbrough was a little quicker, with a motor that wouldn’t quit. He was rated fourth among power forwards and No 10 overall.
Heading into their freshman years, McRoberts actually had it easier. While he was the extra size the Blue Devils desperately needed, he was never going to be asked to lead the team, not with seniors, Redick and Sheldon on the floor.
He would get a year to develop as a solid role player for the nations best team. For Hansbrough, there was no breathing room.
His Carolina team had just won the title the year before and they would head into ’05-’06 with their top eight scorers gone. Tyler was Carolina’s No. 1 recruit and he would need to step into that leadership role quickly.
In their first meeting, the (21-1) Devils got the best of the (14-5) Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, and McRoberts had a big game, scoring 17 points on 6-8 shooting. Hansbrough had a decent 14 points and nine rebounds in a losing effort.
However, North Carolina and Hansbrough were getting better and by the time the two teams faced off in the final game of the regular season. The Tar Heels were able to pull of the amazing upset to ruin senior night for Redick and Williams.
In a way, it was Hansbrough’s coming out party. He dominated the paint with 27 points (9-17 shooting) and 10 rebounds. McRoberts barely showed up, scoring four points and grabbing a single rebound.
The season would end early for both teams. The Tar Heels were victims of the George Mason Cinderella run (falling in the second round), while Duke was stopped by LSU in the Sweet 16.
In season two, all eyes were on the two big men on Tobacco Road. Tyler was the ACC rookie of the year, while Josh finished 2005, scoring ten double-double’s in his last fourteen games.
Both McRoberts and Hansbrough would be leading even younger squads (both teams would start three freshman), so the fate of their respected programs would be on their shoulders.
While both had solid stats for the season (Hansbrough: 18/8, McRoberts 13/8), Hansbrough clearly showed he was up for the challenge, McRoberts didn’t.
Tyler became the unquestionable leader of a Carolina team that would roll through the regular season and miss the Final Four by a game (an Elite Eight defeat to Georgetown), while McRoberts couldn’t adapt to his role as leader. More often than not, when Duke needed a go-to player, he failed.
-In Duke’s first game against a ranked opponent, McRoberts hit only 4-16 shots from the floor in a loss to Marquette.
- In a two-point defeat in overtime to the Hokies, McRoberts failed to make a shot in the final 4:48.
- In a nine-point defeat to Georgia Tech, Duke’s ‘best’ player took only ten shots.
- In a two-point defeat to Virgina (the beginning of a four-game losing streak), Josh would not make a shot in the final eight plus minutes. His final miss would have given Duke the lead with a minute to go in overtime. He finished 7-18 for the day.
- In a one-point loss at home to FSU, McRoberts missed a game winner with six seconds on the clock. He finished with only 12 points, taking only three total shots in the final 13 minutes.
- In a home loss to North Carolina, McRoberts fell apart. He took only five shots, scoring six points and missing his only two free-throw attempts. Hansbrough had a solid 16/6 on 5-9 shooting.
- In Duke’s second defeat to Maryland, Josh hit only 5-13 shots, scoring 10. He took ZERO free throws.
- In the second meeting with Carolina, McRoberts scored nine points, grabbing 10 boards, but failed to take a single shot in the final 11 minutes. During that same stretch, Hansbrough scored 10 points to wrap up Carolina’s sweep of Duke.
- And finally, in the first round loss to VCU, McRoberts actually had a decent game; 22 points, 12 boards, however, he missed two of four free throws in the final 1:41. If he makes them both, the game ends differently.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m nitpicking stats in Duke defeats from three years ago, but I just remember watching that year and thinking, Hansbrough is becoming a star while McRoberts always seem to shrink in the moments the team needed him to be a man and hit big shots.
He always looked like a guy who regretted not going pro and was seeing his draft status fall further and further down as the season went on.
After the dust settle, McRoberts was out-of-there, Hansbrough won the head-to-head battle, 3-1 (including the final three). Josh wasn’t drafted until Portland took him with the 38th pick.
A bit disappointing considering he was a mid-to-late first rounder the year before. He has spent most of his time bouncing back and forth from the big leagues to the D league. This season, he’s averaging two points and two boards, playing under eight minutes per game for Indiana Pacers.
As for Hansbrough, I think we all know what he’s done; most career free throw in NCAA history, the ACC all-time leading scorer, his jersey was retired by Carolina, four-time All-ACC player, the 2008 National Player of the year, 6-2 record against Duke, including 4-0 at Cameron…I could go on and on and on and on, but I won’t because it makes me sick.
Most importantly though, he’s taking his team to the Final Four two straight years and with a win tonight, will hand Carolina another championship.
It’s simple…one player will go down as one of college basketball’s greatest players, the other…will be completely forgotten in 10 years.
And while I’m sure greatness will swing back to Duke soon enough (and then back to Carolina, and then back to Duke), if you want to know why the Tar Heels rule Tobacco Road right now in 2009, look no further than the two tall white guys recruited in 2005.
So as I sit down to tonight, sliding on my fictional Michigan State hat, screaming at the top of my lungs for a Carolina defeat, at some point in my mind, I’ll be asking…hey Josh, how cold does that Indiana bench feel right now?