John Smallwood: And now the rest of the North Carolina story

NORTH CAROLINA coach Roy Williams says there is the feel-good story. That's the one about how the disappointment of last year's loss in the national semifinals to Kansas convinced his star players to return for one more shot at a national championship.

Then there is something a little closer to reality.

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Tyler Hansbrough is the ACC's all-time leading scorer.

"There is no question that it was a factor," Williams said yesterday on a conference call as his team gears up to head to Detroit for its Final Four showdown with Villanova on Saturday, "but I keep trying to emphasize that it was not the biggest factor.

"It sounds cute and it makes for a good story, but if [junior point guard Ty Lawson] had been told he was going to be a top-15 pick in the NBA Draft, he would've gone.

"If [swingmen Danny Green, a senior, and Wayne Ellington, a junior] had been convinced that they were going to be first-round picks, they would've been gone.

"They were not convinced of that. Ty was not convinced. We didn't have [an NBA team] come forward and say that they were going to be their pick. That gave them a wonderful option to come back to school."

What Williams conceded was once each player made the personal decision to stay in Chapel Hill for another season, Lawson, Green and Ellington - along with senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, who already had decided he would be a 4-year player - made the collective decision.

What it amounted to was this: We got to the Final Four last year and didn't play very well. Let's see if we can do better this year.

It's such a cliché to say this team or that team is on a mission to win an NCAA championship. The fact of the matter is that virtually every team starts the season on a mission to win the title. It's just that some are better equipped and better prepared to accomplish that task.

With Lawson, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, seemingly back healthy from a toe injury that kept him out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Carolina is as equipped and prepared as any team in the Final Four.

Led by Hansbrough, the all-time leading scorer in Atlantic Coast Conference history, the Tar Heels have five players (also Lawson, Ellington, Green and Deon Thompson) who averaged double-digit points.

It is fair to say that Hansbrough, the 2007-08 National Player of the Year, is a 4-year college player in part because he has not projected out as an impact player at the NBA level.

But the NCAA Tournament is played by collegiate players, and Hansbrough is one of the best college players ever.

"I've said all year long that every college coach in America should want Tyler Hansbrough to have a great year," Williams said. "With a kid like him, agents or street runners can't say, 'You better jump out while it's hot because you never know what will happen.'

"He came back because he loves college basketball and the college life. The NBA did not fold. He'll still be a [first-round] draft choice. Things will still be good for him."

The second-ranked Tar Heels (32-4) moved out of the Sweet 16 into the Final Four with comfortable victories over 10th-ranked Gonzaga and seventh-ranked Oklahoma.

The 12-point victory over the Sooners in the South Regional final was the closest game the Tar Heels have had in the tournament. Overall this season, the Heels are averaging 90 points a game

But a year ago, UNC rolled into the Final Four only to be stopped by eventual champion Kansas. With Villanova having knocked off UCLA, Duke and Pittsburgh to win the East Regional, Williams is fully aware of the threat the Wildcats pose.

"Frankly, it's hard to imagine anybody playing better than them right now," said Williams, who won the 2005 NCAA championship with Carolina. "We returned home [Sunday night]. We got to the Smith Center about 12:30 a.m., so I did not go home and start breaking down tape. I got some cookies and milk, sat on my rear end a little while and went to bed."

But again, Williams knows the quality of UCLA, Duke and Pitt, and he knows it takes a special team to put those three programs down.

"From a distance, while your own team is playing, you don't have time to sit down and study somebody else," Williams said. "I've had an assistant in charge of Villanova the past week and I'll get more information from him when we start looking at them." *

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