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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
TAMPA - Nice little trophy. It will look just fine there in the back of the case.
Nice little trip. The weather was good, the hotel was fine and no one else broke his face.
Nice little tournament. Nothing wrong with a few well attended practices, especially when a team gets to work on its net-cutting skills.
All in all, winning the ACC championship turned out to be a fine way for North Carolina to spend its weekend. It won a few games, it had a few moments, and it slammed the book shut on rival N.C. State's feel-good story.
Nope, there is nothing wrong with winning.
It's just that when a program is used to bigger game, this was kind of like hunting rabbit.
The way UNC handled its ACC tournament championship said much about the program and more about its perspective on Sunday afternoon. Oh, the Heels looked as if they enjoyed cutting down the nets, and they can always find a grin after beating N.C. State.
On the other hand, this wasn't the game everyone is going to be talking about over the summer, was it?
Expecting North Carolina to get worked up about an ACC tournament title is like asking Sir Edmund Hillary how he liked climbing up Stone Mountain. At UNC, four national championships make the standards a little higher and the goals a little bigger. Even as the Tar Heels beat back a pesky N.C. State team Sunday afternoon, 89-80, no one was falling in with the moment.
Not with the NCAA basketball tournament beginning this week.
Not with the Tar Heels looking as if they are going to make a run.
"It's special because it's the ACC, okay?" said Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach. "But we won nine regular season championships when I was at Kansas, and we won our conference tournament four or five times. And what was I called when I got back? The coach who couldn't win the big one.
"Let's be honest. I feel great about this. Nobody feels better than I do. But this does not compare to winning the national championship. If blue-haired ladies are going to write me notes, I'll just have to live with it. It's a nice weekend, and as long as we have to be here, we want to do our best, but let's not get carried away."
For North Carolina, in other words, the way to present this weekend is this: First, the team's workouts went really, really well. And at the end, everyone got trophies. Whee.
Who can blame the Tar Heels for feeling that way? This team is so talented, so deep, that it has every right to expect to make a run at the tournament title. This team comes at an opponent in waves, daring anyone to stop it, daring anyone to keep up. Given how well it played here, it's hard not to see North Carolina as one of the top four teams in the field.
Take Sunday. As hard as N.C. State was to handle, it was as if North Carolina was already playing against Florida and Ohio State and the rest. There was a moment when I could have sworn Brandan Wright drove past Joakim Noah and laid the ball in over Greg Oden, but no one can be sure.
"I think (the tournament) is unbelievably wide open," Williams said. "Ohio State has had a great year. Wisconsin had that little slip-up against Michigan State, but they've had a great year. And Florida is the defending champion. I think someone has to tell Florida they're not the champions anymore, but I think 15-20 teams have a chance at winning it."
Yes, one of those teams is North Carolina. They're good enough inside, and they're good enough outside and, especially, they're good enough at the head coach position. Did you notice Williams pounding his fist on the scorer's table Sunday? His team was only ahead 16 points at the time.
There is Wright, the razor-thin forward. Watch Wright play, and you feel like rushing onto the court and offering to be his agent as soon as he decides to turn pro. Wright is the reason there may soon be a bounty on agents in the state of North Carolina.
There is Tyler Hansbrough, the fiery post player. Hansbrough wasn't his usual threat here because of that Hannibal Lecter eat-your-liver-with-fava-beans mask of his, but he's a competitive cuss. Hey, it took Darth Vader a while to get used to his mask, too.
There is Ty Lawson, the sensational point guard and Wayne Ellington and Reyshawn Terry and the rest of them, spilling out one after the other like someone put excellence in a copying machine. If nothing else, this tournament was a harkening that they are on their way.
"I hope they enjoyed the feeling of cutting down nets and winning those trophies," Williams said.
At North Carolina, such exercises go down as essential basketball drills.
This time, victory was good. This time, it just wasn't enough.