First to qualify: UNC was a very very good team this year.
That said...UNC was largely considered the team to beat at the beginning of this year. That perception continued despite several close calls through the course of the season (and, of course, two notable home losses). The excuse given to Carolina was injuries, and, of course, there was some validity to that. However, Carolina was healthy when they escaped Duke in Cameron and Va Tech in the ACC tourney.
Stepping back, UNC's season through the end of the ACC tourney looked a lot like Duke's. UNC had two regular season ACC losses. Duke had three. UNC was taken to overtime or to the wire several times in the ACC season...if even one of those games that they won had gone against them, their regular season would have been a near perfect mirror of Duke's. UNC barely escaped losing in the ACC tournament semis while Duke lost (to a better team) in that same round.
Carolina got the Raleigh/Charlotte path by squeaking out several close calls. One or two more losses (or a couple more Duke wins) and they would not have had the Charlotte region. And we saw what happened to them as soon as they stepped away from Dean Dome II...er...Bobcat's Arena.
So was Carolina's perceived status as the "prohibitive favorite" more hype than reality all along?
The UNC-as-THE-favorite thing only really started over the past week and in reaction to how well they played to make the Final Four. For the vast majority of the season, they alternated favorite status with UCLA, Memphis, and Kansas. It was only over the past week that their odds to win the championship was listed as significantly higher than the other three teams. So, did they become a sham over the past week? I guess, if you want to be nitpicky about it. Clearly, they are not shoulders above KU, Memphis, and UCLA. Still, they went 36-3 and made the Final Four. A great season and a great team for 2008.
Personally, I think saying UNC was overrated all along is letting Roy off the hook.
Getting to the Final Four can never be considered a choke job but this is yet another Roy Williams team that fell short of expectations; no way around it. Coming into the Final Four, UNC was as much a favorite as they could've been in an all-#1 seed Final Four. I've said all along that Kansas is the most talented team in the country and I still believe that but I wouldn't necessarily argue with anyone who said UNC was the most talented team and most people expected UNC to win this game; they were favored by 3.5 points and lost by 18. If Kansas knew anything about shot selection, it might've been a lot worse than 18.
That being said, I disagree that UNC and Duke's respective seasons mirrored each other. They were similar in the W and L columns but following the February 6th game in Chapel Hill, UNC got better from that point on (particularly on defense) and Duke did the exact opposite. UNC got to the ACC tournament final; Duke did not. UNC made it to the Final Four in a tougher region; Duke probably should've lost in the first round...to a 15 seed.
And if it started in the preseason, it was confirmed when they came into CIS and held Duke scoreless for the last 5 minutes of the game. By the time the ACC tourney had come around, UNC was playing the best basketball of anyone I had seen and they were the national favorite based on what I saw. And you can't say it started over the past week when they were picked as the #1 overall seed more 3 weeks ago.
To clarify: I am not trying to argue that Duke was as good as UNC this year...just that UNC may have been given too much credit by the media all year long, particularly at the end of the year. (ie: until 9:30 Saturday night UNC was being touted as the probitive favorite in San Anton...but it's easy to look good playing four games at home, three against totally outclassed opponents).
My feelings on Duke 2007-08 vs UNC 2007-08 (again, not the point of the orginal post at all): (1) UNC had much, much more talent; (2) In late January/early February Duke was every bit as good as UNC...maybe better; (3) By early March UNC was clearly the better team; (4) Neither team had a bad season by any measure, and the only disappointment one can feel at the way the teams' seasons ended is a result of the expectations generated by the performances of the teams leading up to those final losses.
Don't want to get completely of the subject but what about Kansas? Going into March their best win was against USC. KU had a weak non-conference schedule and their two most difficult road games (K-State and Texas) they lost. Going into the tourney their only impressive win was against Texas in the Big 12 Tourney in Kansas City. Most people believed KU to be extremely talented and very good, (rightfully so) but Kansas wasn't anymore impressive then UNC until last night.
From a basketball standpoint, I can't even make fun of them TOO much even though I have no love lost for UNC. Obviously, KU came out playing much looser than the Heels, and 40-12 is a joke. But despite their sucky play, UNC did lose to an athletically superior team. The game should've been much closer, but I understand why the blowout happened. KU's quickness on defense was stunning. And since it IS single-elimination, UNC didn't have a chance to redeem themselves in subsequent matchups.
The holes are much better than they displayed last night. If you're honest with yourself, you have to admit this.
I think a big part of their problem is the result of being allowed to stay close to home. Up until last night they hadn't been pushed at all, by any opponent, through the tournament. This can result in a lack of performance when playing better quality opposition. They weren't sharp, either physically or mentally. A dulled razor isn't going to cut very well. So, I believe there is benefit to not being the overall number one seed, getting an easier path forward.
Remember, Coach K has said, and I think it has proven true, that you don't win this tournament without either a close call or some luck somewhere along the way.
Name a decent team the Holes beat on a court outside the State of North Carolina. I don't think that such a team exists. Granted, the win in Cameron was impressive, but we were not a good team down the stretch. For all the talk about our "weak" OOC, the Holes got a schedule break throughout the year and in the tourney (Raleigh and Charlotte with huge fan participation).
For some reason, they only came to play defense if a few games, including at Cameron. I think the lack of a tough schedule (and I don't think the ACC was very strong at the top or middle) hurt them in the end.
I think it's safe to say, that for the record, Clemson beat themselves. Twice!
play last night's game 9 more times and my money is on unc for the series... don't get me wrong, i was very happy and wanted ku to win last night, but i dont think that last night's game plays out the same again
Carolina won all year by out talenting people, and using their talent advantage to points off of turnovers and fast breaks. Their entire strategy was predicated on having better players top to bottom than everyone else they faced. And by and large, they DID have better players all year long, until they ran into Kansas.
Although Hansbrough is probably the best overall player in that match up, I think Kansas is on the whole a good bit more talented. Kansas rotates four guys in their frontcourt who are all significantly better than Thompson, and way, way better than Stephenson/Graves/whoever it is the holes have after TH and DT. Chalmers versus Lawson is a push. And I'd take Rush, Robinson, and Collins over Ellington, Ginyard, and Green any day of the week.
Kansas has the more talented team and equal, maybe ever superior depth, and while Roy is good at collecting talent and using his talent edge to overwhelm the competition, I don't think he's quite as secure when coaching the inferior team. I think the Jayhawks win six or seven out of ten.
Memphis played Tennessee, UConn and Gonzaga.
UNC played Davidson, Duke, Clemson and Kentucky (terrible at beginning of the year)
Kansas played Kansas St, Texas, Arizona, Baylor and USC
I'd say UCLA had the tuffest schedule - Stanford (3 times), Texas, Davidson, USC, Arizona, Michigan St and Oregon.
But yeah, I'd still say UNC was the team to beat. A lot of the above teams had close calls and lost to teams they should've beat. UNC had trouble against Clemson in the same way that UCLA had trouble against Stanford (although both UNC and UCLA won all 3 matchups).
UNC lost to Duke without Lawson. With Lawson in the lineup, UNC basically had 1 loss (Maryland) and two very close games - Virginia Tech and Clemson (game 1).
I thought Carolina was a very good, not great, team. A few weak spots:
1. Reliance on Hansbrough getting to the line frequently---Hansbrough was an outstanding player, but less so if he didn't get to the FT line 10 times or more in a game. When he was getting to the line often, the Heels were scoring, the other team was getting into foul trouble, and opposing defenses had to be conscious of contact. In some late season and tournament games, the whistle may not blow as often.
2. Inconsistency of outside shooting---Ellington was their best shooter, and he was prone to have bad nights, esp. from 3-points; Green and Lawson contributed some, but it was not a great outside shooting team.
3. Team defense---lacked a good shot blocker; didn't have great pressure on the perimeter, allowing good looks from outside or chances to feed inside if a team, like Kansas, had good ability and size down low.
Carolina ended up with a very good record for the year, but IMO didn't match up well with Kansas or would not have matched up well with Memphis.
We had to know that Carolina was capable of playing soft:
Davidson W 72-68 (good team but close game)
Clemson W 90-88 (OT)
Georgia Tech W 83-82
Maryland L 82-80
Florida State W 84-73 (OT)
Duke L 89-78
Clemson W 103-93 (2OT)
Virginia W 75-74
Virginia Tech W 68-66
Clemson W 86-81
That's 3 OT wins, two 1-point wins, and a 2-point win in regular season play. Plus, I think I remember a couple other games where they were losing in the final minutes, only to pull away and win by 8 or so once the fouling started; I just can't remember which games those were. Crunch-time factors aside, they probably should have lost half of those close games, but through luck or for whatever reason, they just didn't.