Finding focus

Joe Rexrode
Yahoo! Sports

Watch: Carolina Season Highlights


WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – North Carolina has the talent to win this tournament.

As obvious statements go, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of, “Duke fell short of expectations this season.”

But it’s going to take more than the raw horsepower of the Tar Heels’ lineup. It’s going to take some intangibles – attention to detail, attention to opponent, toughness – that aren’t as apparent with this young team as are its physical gifts.

Things that apply more to a team like, oh, let’s see here … Georgetown, for example. In a quirk of the “pod” system, the East Regional’s No. 1 and No. 2 seeds both played here this weekend, giving everyone in Lawrence Joel Coliseum a peek at what could be a splendid regional final.

Both teams advanced Saturday. The No. 2-seed Hoyas went forward with a gutsy 62-55 comeback over No. 7-seed Boston College. The top-seeded Tar Heels rallied for an 81-67 win over ninth-seeded Michigan State that was closer than the score indicated and brought up some familiar questions. Namely, can North Carolina defend well enough to get out of East Rutherford and to Atlanta?

You can say UNC won it all two years ago playing much the same way and that it is depth and size and multiple offensive weapons that win this time of year. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

But Michigan State made an impression even in a losing effort. This is probably Tom Izzo’s least-talented group in the past 10 years, yet he got them into the tournament, past Marquette and into the Tar Heels’ heads for a good portion of Saturday night.

“I thought anybody that was a Spartan tonight should have been proud of their effort, and I don’t say that very often,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led with 6:54 left, but the Heels finished on a 23-8 burst to run away. The Spartans, particularly shooting guard Drew Neitzel (26 points), were beat. Talent, not necessarily toughness, prevailed. Depending on who you ask.

“We are as happy as we can possibly be, we showed a tremendous amount of toughness tonight,” Roy Williams said.

“I think we’re a tough team,” UNC’s Wes Miller said. “People have been questioning that all year, but the guys in our locker room know we’re tough. Maybe we haven’t shown it all year, but we are now.”

This would have been the teams’ third meeting in three tournaments, including UNC’s 87-71 win in the 2005 Final Four, but for the fact that both got stuck in George Mason’s pod a year ago. MSU brings back everyone from this team, along with three highly-ranked, much-needed perimeter recruits, making it very possible the Tar Heels and Spartans will meet much later in this event in 2008.

Williams’ group might be defending a national title by then. But for that to happen, they’ll need to shed their air that suggests, “All we have to do is show up, avoid tripping on each other and we’ll be fine.”

It didn’t cost them a win over the offensively limited Spartans. But it won’t get them past Texas or USC or Georgetown.

A lot of eyebrows were raised Friday when UNC freshman point guard Ty Lawson was asked about his primary defender in this game, MSU’s Travis Walton, who was a Big Ten all-defensive honoree this season.

“I really haven’t watched him too much. I haven’t watched too many games,” Lawson said. “People say he is a good defender and gets a lot of steals but I haven’t seen him play too much so I wouldn’t know.”

Meanwhile, Walton had studied so much tape of Lawson by then, he knew Lawson sweats more profusely in his left armpit than his right.

Asked basic questions about MSU’s strengths and weaknesses, here’s how senior Reyshawn Terry and sophomore Tyler Hansbrough responded.

Terry: “I really haven’t seen a lot of them, but all around I think their defense is pretty aggressive.”

Hansbrough: “I’m sure we’ll get into that tonight.”

Hey, some coaches don’t want to overload their teams with information in these short-prep situations. But a mention of the opponent’s name might have been nice, one day before tipoff.

A little more attention from these tremendously gifted players might have prevented MSU guard Drew Neitzel from getting more wide-open shots than he saw in all of February in the Big Ten. He was 9-of-27 from the field. Maybe three of those were contested. Had Neitzel shot the way he did in a lot of games this season, he would have dropped 40 and the Spartans might have dropped the Tar Heels.

And a little more toughness would serve North Carolina well in future rounds. Hansbrough has it, now that his dalliance with mask-related timidity is over. He shed the mask and burned the Spartans for 33 points. Lawson is “a tough little nut,” Williams said, who bulled his way to 20 points against the Spartans. With UNC clinging to a five-point lead in the final two minutes, Terry showed some mental fortitude with a pair of jumpers.

But these guys won’t have home crowds and overmatched opponents available in East Rutherford, N.J.

“As a coach you’d love to have a team that is diving on the floor, pulling nails out of the floor, slobbering and spitting and taking charges 40 minutes a game,” Williams acknowledged.

Georgetown does that stuff. It would be nice to see North Carolina do it more. Roy Williams has himself a talent mine, and that would be a terrible thing to waste.

Joe Rexrode covers Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal.

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