The Real Reason UNC Won

The better, more mature team triumphed.

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When the matchup for the finals in the NCAA men’s basketball championship was set between the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday night, one analyst after another began counseling fans to ignore the Tar Heel-Spartan game on Dec. 3 at Ford Field. In that game, UNC ran out to a 53-39 halftime lead en route to a 98-63 rout. Repeatedly, we were told that this was a different Spartans team. They were more mature, more athletic, more cohesive.

The conventional wisdom takes it on the chin from time to time in sports, but rarely has it received such a haymaker of a punch as it did last night. The Tar Heels led 17-7 five minutes into the game and held a comfortable—and eerily familiar—55-34 lead at the halftime en route to a nowhere-near-as-close-as-the-final-score-suggests 89-72 win.

Monday night’s title game was hardly worth the hoopla. It wasn’t as interesting as the centerpiece of an increasingly predictable three weeks of college basketball, but it was an utterly fascinating coronation. UNC was the preseason favorite to win the national championship. During the 240 minutes of six games in the tournament, they led by double digits for nearly 80 percent of the time. Their six tournament wins were by 43, 14, 21, 12, 13 and 17 points. Just before halftime, a hoops-head pal of mine texted me to ask, “How did this team lose four games?”

It’s those four losses that will keep us from comparing this year’s UNC to the great NCAA champions of all time, but their dominance was just as thorough. Spartan center Goran Suton shot an impressive 7-10 against the Tar Heels; the rest of the Michigan State team shot 15-45. The Spartans trademark was how well they took care of the ball; in five tournament games before Monday night, 331 possessions in all, they committed only 62 turnovers—18.7 percent of the time. On roughly 58 possessions, last night the Spartans gave away the ball 21 times or 36.2 percent, nearly twice their tournament average. Michigan State had already beaten three teams with top defenses, the University of Louisville, University of Kansas and the University of Connecticut. The Spartan meltdown is a mark of the Tar Heels’ greatness.

One of the best measures of a college basketball team is its outside shooting and their ability to stop other teams from distance. Since teams can pack the middle in a variety of zone defenses, the only way to get some easy shots is to spread the opposing defense. Against Villanova University in Saturday night’s semifinal, the Tar Heels shot 50 percent from behind the arc and held ‘Nova to an ice-cold 18.5 percent.

In their regional final win over the University of Oklahoma, the Tar Heels held the Sooners to 10.5 percent from behind the arc. Only one of UNC’s five tournament opponents—LSU in the second round—shot better than the national average. Michigan State shot 30.4 percent from behind the arc last night, a slight improvement over the 23.5 percent they shot back in the Dec. 3 blowout. Only the tournament’s reputation for upsets made this game worth watching; all other key factors predicted a blowout.

UNC was led by senior Tyler Hansbrough and two juniors, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson. Last year’s champion, University of Kansas, had a nucleus of upperclassmen as did the second University of Florida title team in 2007. There’s a big age difference between 19 and 21. The good news is that in this tournament these upperclassmen-led teams may soon become the norm.

In the upcoming negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NBA is likely to demand a raise in the minimum age that a player can enter the league from 19 to 21. This will be a bargaining stance, but it’s hard to imagine the league settling for anything older than a 20-year-old age minimum. When it was proposed in the previous negotiations, the league wanted 20 and compromised to 19. This time when the negotiations begin in earnest for a new agreement, which will take effect after the 2010-11 season, the owners will hold all the cards. And with several teams hemorrhaging red ink, there will be urgency for several changes. The age limit won’t be as much of a contentious issue as it was in 2005, so some sort of raise in the minimum age for NBA players is likely.

As a result, the sort of “veteran” teams that we’ve become accustomed to seeing cut down the nets on the first Monday in April, may become the norm throughout the NCAA. Building a winning college basketball program used to be equal parts recruiting talented players and coaching them into a unit. Since the mid-‘90s, it seemed that recruiting had begun to take on a dominant share. With the recent title teams and coming changes in the NBA, those veteran teams will become the standard across the board. When they do, the upsets that once characterized this tournament will return.  

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.