North Carolina turns scrutiny on its head and will be dangerous at NCAAs

WASHINGTON, D.C — Roy Williams turned his hat sideways and did a little dance on the ACC Tournament championship stage Saturday night. After performing his jig, he prodded a couple North Carolina players to look at him, as if asking whether he did it right.

It’s all starting to look right for the Tar Heels headed into the NCAA Tournament. There will be talk about whether the ACC regular-season and tournament champions deserve a No. 1 seed based on their entire resume. It doesn’t matter given how North Carolina is playing.

“I think we are the most criticized really good basketball team I’ve ever coached and least appreciated,” Williams said.

The Tar Heels should be prepared to keep wearing the black hats at the NCAA Tournament, even though they're one of the most dangerous teams that could cut down the nets. To most of the public, the Tar Heels are the team the NCAA wouldn’t investigate for decades of academic fraud involving athletes in fake classes. Yet here they are as a hot team headed into March Madness.

The NCAA case is still pending. North Carolina faces multiple charges of serious misconduct, including lack of institutional control, for impermissible extra benefits over nine years that the NCAA said “seriously undermined or threatened the integrity of the NCAA collegiate model.”

The scrutiny is only going to get ratcheted up again for North Carolina over the next three weeks. The Tar Heels are about to enter college basketball's highest-profile stage with the NCAA case still looming over their heads.

Because of this scrutiny, Williams says this might be his favorite team he has ever coached. 

“You have to understand the situation that’s been going on at our place,” he said. “There’s been some negative stuff for three years. We’ve been having negative recruiting against us. These kids believed that we’re going to be able to play in tournaments, we’re okay. We’re okay. We’re okay. Just trust and believe in us. I think if somebody does that on a scale they did when there was so much criticism, it makes things extremely special.”

Us-against-the-world mottos ring hollow in context with the systematic academic fraud that happened at North Carolina. Still, for Williams and these Tar Heels, it has been a trying year for the preseason No. 1 team even beyond the NCAA investigation.

Marcus Paige can’t shoot anymore and should return to point guard, the critics said.

The Tar Heels don’t play defense like a championship team should, the critics said.

North Carolina isn’t mentally tough enough to close out important games, the critics said.

Over the past eight days, North Carolina turned these narratives on their head. The Tar Heels closed out Duke on the road last Sunday, assuring Williams that he wouldn’t have his first group of seniors in 28 years of coaching to never win a regular-season championship.

After sleeping for most of the first half, North Carolina blitzed Pittsburgh to open the ACC Tournament. Then the Tar Heels turned in their scariest and most complete 40 minutes in a long time by rolling Notre Dame for the most lopsided ACC Tournament semifinal result ever.

But the most impressive performance over the past week came Saturday. North Carolina beat Virginia at its own game, winning the lowest-scoring ACC Tournament championship game since 1985.

“We know if we can keep Virginia from what they want to do on offense, we can keep anybody in the country from doing it,” said guard Joel Berry, the ACC Tournament MVP and the Tar Heels’ most consistent player this season. “We’ve always had trouble closing out games. We did that tonight and that’s what we have to continue to do.”

The Tar Heels aren’t a perfect team. Paige, who scored 13 points despite missing all 7 of his 3-point shots, remains their biggest X-factor moving forward. But he showed that he can affect the game other ways by penetrating Virginia’s defense to get into the lane and helping to hold ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to 6-of-22 shooting.

North Carolina’s size and athleticism upfront will give fits to almost any team in the first two rounds. Most importantly, the Tar Heels don’t look uptight anymore. They’re loose and confident, a perfect ingredient for March.

“I think we’re one of the top four teams in college basketball,” Williams said after the Tar Heels won their first ACC Tournament championship since 2008. “I really believe that.”

Love them or hate them, the Tar Heels firmly control their NCAA Tournament chances again.

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North Carolina hopes to cut down the nets one more time this season.(USATSI)
North Carolina hopes to cut down the nets one more time this season. (USATSI)
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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