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March 20, 2011Observations of a Sweet 16 team:
-- Dean Smith always said that a team builds its momentum within a tournament, not carry it in from a different part of the season. This Carolina team is a great example of that. The Tar Heels lost the momentum that just kept building through the victory against Duke in the final regular-season game at the Smith Center. Then UNC played so-so against Long Island in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but Carolina did more than just win against Washington on Sunday. The Tar Heels took the best shot an outstanding team could deliver and dished back more. Freshmen, sophomores and a junior playing his first full season made huge play after huge play to overcome. Were there mistakes? Sure. But rarely does a team advance to the Final Four without winning a nail-biting, gut-wrenching game somewhere along the line.
-- The idiotic idea that Kendall Marshall was somehow exposed for not being the superb point guard prodigy that he is because he had a down ACC Tournament has now been shown to be horse manure. Shame on any Carolina fan who believed that or bought into it when the talking heads on TV suggested it. All Marshall did on Sunday was steer the comeback with the most assists in an NCAA Tournament game in school history and outplay a junior point guard who has had an excellent season and is feared in his league.
-- Harrison Barnes may not return for a sophomore year, but if he does it is awfully difficult to imagine him not being the national player of the year next season and getting his No. 40 hung next to No. 50 on the front row at the Smith Center. He still makes some mistakes, but the absolutely clutch soul of his showed yet again, and this time on defense as well. The steal he created toward the end of the game was enormous, and so was the block he made without fouling. His 3-point shots, my goodness, the kid has no fear within him whatsoever.
-- Now we see why Roy Williams was so fortunate to get Tyler Zeller when his first choice fell through three years ago. Zeller is back to running the court as well, or better, than any big man in the country, and his aggressive, powerful play around the basket with shots and put-backs played as important a role as any in the Tar Heels' victory on Sunday. Washington could not deal with Zeller without fouling. And similar to another Tyler, he is an excellent free-throw shooter who makes the most of those opportunities.
-- Dexter Strickland may have some games in which he does not play all that well, but then he dishes one out as he did on Sunday in which the good overshadows any doubts. The kid, playing on a bad knee (how he can run and bounce that way on a bad knee is beyond me) is a competitor of the first order with a huge, huge heart.
-- God bless John Henson, his smile and his gigantic wingspan. Even when his shots are not dropping he never stops trying to rebound and block shots. Defensively, UNC does not win that game without Henson down the stretch. Every Carolina fan should hit their knees tonight and pray Henson will play one more year in Chapel Hill. He will leave as the best defensive player in the history of a great program, as well as one of the best rebounders. His ability to reach up and just snatch the ball from above the crowd with confidence and strength is a beautiful thing to behold.
-- Williams. He did a horrible job last season. He berated a young team and cast too much of the blame on it. This year could not be more different. He may yell at them sometimes, but he stays positive so much more and encourages these kids, pushing them and getting them to dig down and find performances within themselves that may even surprise the kids at times.
-- This is now officially not the 2006 team, which failed to regain its cohesion and defensive ability that carried it down the stretch of the regular season into the ACC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels may not win the next game, but they are playing one, and they have a chance to get better after improving on Sunday and regaining some of the continuity that carried them to this point.
-- By the time Sunday's play ends, there will be 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament. After playing in the NIT championship game a year ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels have come back to be one of those elite group of players and coaches. The work, togetherness and strength to overcome deserves the respect and appreciation of anyone who calls him or herself a Carolina fan. And it will be a joy to listen to the Carolina haters whine on television all week.