Experience gives North Carolina edge over Final Four foes

1 Chicago

Chicago News & Search

1 News - 1 eMovies - 1 eMusic - 1 eBooks - 1 Search

Along with their uniforms, sneakers and sweats, the North Carolina players made sure to pack portable gaming systems for their trip to Memphis, Tennessee, last week. Being cooped up in a hotel gets old fast, and you can only binge-watch Netflix for so many hours.

“We’re going to be here for this long, I’m not going to just sit in the room and be bored,” Tar Heels forward Kennedy Meeks said.

It’s a small thing, knowing a comfort from home can help keep boredom at bay as a three-day trip stretches into five and time seems to move slower each day. But as the games get bigger and the field gets smaller, it’s those small things that can add up to something big.

North Carolina, as you might have heard a time or two, is the outsider at the newcomers game Saturday, a.k.a. the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are making their first appearances, and Oregon is back for the first time since 1939.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is in the field for the second year in a row. Of the Tar Heels who see significant playing time, freshman Tony Bradley is the only one who wasn’t part of last year’s team, which came within seconds of winning the national title.

That means while the Ducks, Bulldogs and Gamecocks all stumble around the Final Four wilderness, North Carolina could tell you the lay of the land blindfolded.

“We’re a little more loose with it, and I think it’s because we’ve been here before,” Meeks said. “We’ve seen these type of things, and we know what it takes to get to that championship game.”

Those who have never been to a Final Four will say these are games like any other, that the key is to maintain the same approach and not do anything different. But that’s not quite true.

Between media requirements, practices and pep rallies, the teams will be operating on schedules not of their own making. The spotlight will be unlike anything they’ve ever seen, with more people at the open practices Friday than they see at some of their home games. Even when they’re on lockdown in the hotel, they’ll be surrounded by fans and hangers-on.

“There’s an advantage [for North Carolina] with the whole process,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few acknowledged Monday. “The general distraction meter is going to go out the roof. Obviously, the Carolina kids have dealt with that and managed it great.”

It’s not just the kids who will have to adapt. Few, Oregon coach Dana Altman and South Carolina coach Frank Martin have never been to a Final Four, either. Even as assistants. And regardless of how good a coach you are, there’s going to be something — probably more than one thing — that will take you by surprise.

Martin told the story last weekend of how, when he took Kansas State on its Elite Eight run in 2010, he botched the quick turnaround after the Sweet 16.

K-State had the late game in the Sweet 16, which went to double overtime. Naturally, the Wildcats then drew the early game in the regional final. In between, K-State was given the choice of an earlier practice or a later one at a different facility. Martin chose the early slot but opted for a walk-through rather than a true practice.

“We slept-walked the whole first half,” Martin said of the regional final, which the Wildcats lost 63-56 to Butler. “I’ll never forgive myself. Because that practice, because of the time we got back, how soon we had to play, we went on the court and we did nothing but shoot balls and walk through things. And that’s not the way we practice.”

A lesson learned, but only through experience.

There’s one last wrinkle: The stadium.

As in recent years, the Final Four is at a domed football stadium. The ceiling height, the size of the seating areas around the court, the depth perception — it’s all going to be different than what players are used to.

And unlike previous years, none of the earlier rounds were played in domes. So that’s one more thing North Carolina has some familiarity with that the other three teams don’t.

Small things, to be sure. But any advantage helps, and North Carolina’s experience gives the Tar Heels a big one.

Follow me on Twitter @nrarmour.


1 Chicago

Chicago News & Search

1 News - 1 eMovies - 1 eMusic - 1 eBooks - 1 Search


Leave a Reply