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With Final Four in sight, Tar Heels getting last laugh

by | CBSSports.com
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Winning always puts teams in a good, if not great, mood, but North Carolina seems to be in on a joke no one else is getting. This team is cackling its way into the Final Four, perhaps a reaction to those who doubted its mettle earlier.

During the team's off-day news conference, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, Dexter Strickland, Tyler Zeller and John Henson took the time to be serious in responding to reporters' questions. But when they weren't doing that, the five were holding back laughter or dropping quick quips to each other under their breath. All of them had smiles or bloated cheeks that appeared to be holding back laughter. Let us in on what's so funny, guys.

Roy Williams joked and jabbed with his players during the presser as well.

"I was about to say, 'Thank you.' I am second-guessing that now," Marshall said after his coached quipped his starting point guard wasn't nearly as intelligent off the court as he is on it. The comment was in jest and a sign Williams is comfortable with this group.

It's a great sign the players can give and take with their coach, too. It means the team hasn't changed its identity and could keep winning, since it's been doing it with this attitude for a few months now.

Then the fire alarm went off inside the Prudential Center and we really got to see how fast and funny UNC is. The team was on the bus, ready to get back to its hotel, within five minutes of the lights flashing and the annoying sirens whining. The engine was running but they hadn't rolled out of the Prudential Center lot. Organizers of the event got to the bus driver before it was too late. So, backpacks strapped to their spines, the players strolled back in and took questions from the media.

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"I thought it was a forklift back up or something at first," Zeller said. "I was lost, coach told us we were going to the bus, but I didn't think we'd actually get out of there."

Zeller, who is on a three-game tournament tear that hasn't happened for a Tar Heel since Charlie Scott in the late 1960s, sported a goofy smile all afternoon. Yet he offers up this:

"I'm the serious guy on game day," Zeller said.

Really, look at this UNC team. This group on the verge of making a Final Four a year after what's considered to be one of the worst seasons in Tar Heels history (a campaign that ended with an appearance in the NIT title game, remember). And with a game against Kentucky to reach Houston (think about the weight, the significance and symbolism this matchup carries), the second-seeded squad is carefree as can be. It doesn't care that Kentucky is now considered a one-point favorite. A lot of this stems from Blue Steel, the five-man prankster collective made up of North Carolina's group of walk-ons. The charge is led by Daniel Bolick, a man Henson proclaims to be his greatest enemy.

"It's not over yet. I got something brewing, but we've got to take care of business these next couple weekends first," Henson said.

This all began when Bolick and Co. smothered Henson's car with sticky notes earlier this season. Marshall and Henson -- the two are roommates -- had to peel off the prank in 30-degree Chapel Hill weather. The video went viral, although the duo got its less-publicized revenge. Shortly thereafter, Marshall and Henson struck back by smushing cotton balls against their rivals' car in equally cold weather.

"Let's just say ... it's not easy to get them off," Marshall said. "But, still, you've just gotta feel the Steel sometimes. They bring a whole other dimension to this team. They're part of that goofiness that we have. They started a name for themselves, and all the little things that bring us close -- it's been great."

This is most certainly not the Heels team from a year ago, most would acknowledge. But it's not even the team it was two months ago, when Larry Drew was starting at point guard instead of Marshall, and the Heels were losing by 20 points to Georgia Tech.

"We lost Larry Drew, but like I said earlier, that brought us together even more," Strickland said. "I can honestly say last year I didn't feel the same way I did this year, as far as the chemistry and believing in one another."

If you want to know the cog behind this laugh-out-loud attitude, blame Henson as much as Blue Steel. The rest of the team does.

"He's 5 years old, mentally," Marshall said.

The 6-11 forward just had his ninth straight double-double in UNC's 81-63 regional semifinal win over Marquette on Friday night. He had five blocks, his seventh straight two-blocks-or-more game.

"As a team, you gotta enjoy this," Henson. "You don't know if it's ever going to happen again. When the clock rings tomorrow, we'll be ready to play."

Henson is the Gumby-like stick figure who seems to have Inspector Gadget arms around the rim and when defending inbound passes. He was one of the few who remained positive -- and reinforced his attitude to teammates -- after Carolina lost 78-58 to Georgia Tech on Jan. 16. That's when consternation amongst the fan base began to bubble, the thinking 2011 could be a 2010 replay. Never happened.

"It starts with John," Barnes said. "We try to get him more on the serious side, and Z's probably our most serious guy, and that's our contrast. We try to keep things loose, so that allows us to play loose."

Loose is the word Barnes' teammates used. He was facing a lot of pressure coming into this season, what with being the only freshman in history to earn preseason first-team All-America honors. Now he's not only loosened up, but within that, he's matured in a different way.

Drew's departure clearly was when the team became cohesive. All this good-natured attitude and collective laughter came during the middle of the ACC season (read: when Marshall was inserted into the starting lineup, with Drew leaving shortly thereafter). Before that, many resigned themselves to the fact UNC would have to deal with an underachieving season despite all the talent on the floor. But now, North Carolina can reach yet another Final Four thanks to its talent, perspective and a sense of humor. That's the funny part.

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