7-year absence from Final Four motivates North Carolina

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Houston — When you play basketball at North Carolina and haven’t reached a Final Four in seven years, people start looking around and wonder what the heck is happening.

For a program that has been to 19 Final Fours, has now reached the national championship game 10 times and has won five national titles, playing on the final week of the season is the norm.

Entering this season, however, the Tar Heels were starting to wonder what it felt like to win something. Their last national championship came in 2009 with a win over Michigan State at Ford Field and they hadn’t won an Atlantic Coast Conference title since 2012. The last time North Carolina won the ACC tournament was 2008.

It was all the incentive coach Roy Williams needed.

“Marcus Paige, said, ‘We’ve been here and never even won a ring,’ ” Williams said on Sunday. “That statement was made in the preseason. That became a motivation for me.”

It proved to be exactly what the Tar Heels needed. They won the ACC regular-season title, cruised to the ACC tournament championship and after beating Syracuse on Saturday are one victory from the sixth national championship in school history.

North Carolina, the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, will get the chance to win that title when it faces Villanova at 9:19 p.m. tonight at NRG Stadium.

“Winning the ACC tournament guaranteed that my guys got a ring. That was important to me,” Williams said. “All of a sudden we get in the NCAA Tournament, you have a chance to get to the Final Four. Getting to the Sweet 16 is nice. Getting to the Elite Eight is nice. Really an accomplishment for every school. But if you can take one more step, it’s another huge accomplishment.

“I felt even better about that part of it.”

And Williams knows plenty about getting to the Final Four, not to mention something about winning it all. He reached the Final Four as Kansas’ coach four times but didn’t win his first title until 2005 at North Carolina. He and the Tar Heels won again in 2009, but then came the drought.

Since 1967, the Tar Heels only once went more than five years without getting to the Final Four. That came in 1991, nine years after they beat Georgetown for the national championship.

That was, of course, during the days of Dean Smith. Williams was an assistant for Smith in 1982 and knows as well as anyone the expectations put on the North Carolina program. In 1991, Smith talked about the nine-year span between appearances at the Final Four, and it just so happened Williams was there, too, with his Kansas team.

Back then, Williams could never have imagined he’d have a chance to have more championships than his mentor, but a win tonight would give him one more than Smith. In fact, he’d join an elite group of five other coaches with three or more titles. That group includes John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and Bobby Knight.

“I’ve never had that thought. I really haven’t,” Williams said Sunday. “I’m still the guy that says truthfully I wanted to be like my high school coach. One of the greatest thrills of my life is I’ve had teams now that have taken me to eight Final Fours. I’ve taken my high school coach with me to eight Final Fours. I have thought a lot about that.”

“That’s company that is off the charts. But what I’d really, really love is for these guys up here sitting on this dais with me to get their first one. That would mean a heck of a lot more to me than any of that other stuff.”

Winning, of course, is no guarantee. On the other side is a Villanova team that is simply coming off the most one-sided win in the history of the Final Four, rolling over Oklahoma, 95-51, and shooting better than 71 percent from the field.

The Wildcats have some history, too.

It is Villanova that is THE Cinderella story of this tournament, its only national title coming in 1985 when the Wildcats upset Georgetown.

They don’t have the Final Four pedigree the Tar Heels do. This is just the fifth time they’ve been here and it will be their third appearance in the championship game.

But they have the momentum of Saturday’s win and they’re not about to concede anything to the basketball blue blood.

“North Carolina is a great team with great tradition,” Villanova guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s just one of those unique matchups that we have. They are a completely different team than us. They have a lot of size. They have a lot of athleticism and they are a great offensive rebounding team and a well-coached team, so we have to be prepared for that.

“I just think if we play Villanova basketball, win or lose, we’re going to be able to look each other in the eye and say we were able to do what we wanted to do.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

NCAA championship

North Carolina vs. Villanova

When: Today, 9:19 p.m.

Where: NRG Stadium, Houston

TV: TBS, TNT, Tru

Records: No. 2 seed Villanova 34-5, No. 1 North Carolina 33-6

Last championships: Villanova 1985, North Carolina 2009