Over the past week, I've alluded repeatedly to the fact that Michigan State improved over the course of the tournament. Well, North Carolina improved, too. This team was better in their last six games than they were during the regular season. They proved as much last night, winning the national championship with ease in an 89-72 victory over the Spartans at Ford Field in Detroit.
On paper, the Heels' in-tournament improvement was on the defensive side of the ball, but in reality this is highly misleading. The North Carolina defense "improved" in no small measure because they were facing opponents that more often than not had been devastated by a first-half taser delivered by the UNC offense. LSU stands out for having played the Heels to a draw for the first 31 minutes of their second-round game, but starting with the tournament's second weekend, Roy Williams' team removed each opponent's confidence early.
Consider these numbers: In the first halves of their games against Gonzaga, Oklahoma, Villanova and Michigan State, North Carolina scored 1.25 points per trip, thanks to 50 percent three-point shooting and, not least, the fact that they committed just 17 turnovers in 151 possessions. In the opening 20 minutes of each of these games, the Tar Heels effectively laid their opponents out on a slab and surgically removed their will. As a result, none of these games were things of beauty unless, of course, you're a UNC fan.
Last night represented the perfection of the genre. The Heels had a ten-point lead at the first TV timeout. Over the game's last 34 minutes the lead was never smaller than 13 points. Against the rugged Spartan half-court defense that was supposed to finally give them a real challenge, Carolina scored 55 first-half points in just 41 possessions.
Of course, the Michigan State offense was helping those numbers along by repeatedly giving the ball away. Ty Lawson's "eight-steal" performance brought home with a vengeance how subjective the steal stat really is. His eighth and final theft was a great interception, but many of the previous "steals" were what an insurer would call "acts of God." Lawson was merely fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, as Kalin Lucas flailed and thrashed about to the tune of six turnovers.
What was most striking about this game was how North Carolina's offense was able to continue doing exactly what it had been doing against lesser defenses. I do mean exactly: Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough combined to shoot 28 free throws. Wayne Ellington scored 19 points on 12 shots. It was a machine-like performance from a machine that, let us not forget, had suffered some ill-timed hiccups in previous tournaments. In both 2007 (Georgetown) and 2008 (Kansas), the Heels' offense was made to look ugly and indeed helpless by opponents who forced Williams' team to take jump shots. (The Hoyas did it at the end of their Elite Eight game; the Jayhawks did it at the beginning of their national semifinal.) There were no such hiccups this year.
Having to play from behind for the entire evening transformed Michigan State from the disciplined and cohesive unit we'd seen the past two games into a really young looking group of people coincidentally wearing the same color. (Though even amidst the deluge Goran Suton did look very Suton-like, hitting 3-of-4 threes and pulling down 11 boards.) Louisville and Connecticut will be forgiven for shaking their heads and wondering what happened to the team they had to play.
What happened, of course, was those aforementioned MSU turnovers. I don't suppose North Carolina was about to lose this game, whether the Spartans committed five turnovers or 50. Nevertheless, Tom Izzo's team would have at least made a game of it if they'd taken care of the rock against the Heels the way they did in their previous tournament games. If you've been reading along with me for the past couple of seasons, this is going to sound familiar: Turnovers are the single most underrated factor in the sport. When Michigan State stopped committing them, they won five tournament games. Even as their other numbers held steady, the drop in turnovers worked wonders, both actual and perceived. Suddenly Izzo became a quick-turnaround tape-scrutinizing genius, the Spartans became beacons of hope for a beleaguered state, and the program as a whole was inching ever closer to best-of-decade status. All from simply holding on to the rock. Maybe there's a lesson there.
I don't doubt for an instant that there's a lesson to be drawn for North Carolina's latest national championship. Last year, I termed the one-and-done era's most elite programs "rotating hegemons." That tag still looks good a year later. Note, for instance, how each of the last six national champions have ridden a generational wave: Connecticut, North Carolina (twice), Florida (twice) and Kansas all won the trophy, said goodbye to pretty much everyone, then started from scratch the following year. (Granted the Gators varied the pattern by bringing everyone back for one encore.) The days of replacing a starter or two are apparently over. Clean slates are the order of the day at the very top of the college hoops pyramid.
Having spotted this deep trend, I'm now ready to predict not only next year's national champion but the next ten. Florida will win it all in 2010 and repeat in 2011. Then Kansas. Then North Carolina. Followed by Florida, Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, Florida…
Well, you get the idea.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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