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As usual 

Once again, the Triangle is the center of the college basketball universe

The estimated 15,000 fans at the Smith Center were so besotted with the happy moment, they defied custom and did not need exhortations from electronic message boards or cheerleaders to raise coordinated shouts of celebration. Tradition's tendrils soothed and stimulated, suddenly more than a reminder. A gaze upward from the floor of the basketball arena revealed, through cuts in the concrete, oversized black-and-white photos of past successful University of North Carolina men's teams lining walls of a pedestrian concourse. Behind and above the platform on which sat the triumphal national champions--all but troubled junior Rashad McCants wearing sports jackets--40 oversized jerseys dangled, celebrating prominent former players and coaches. Other baby blue rafters bristled with 78 banners celebrating program achievements, from championships to postseason appearances to high standings in national polls. Several more bedspread-sized pennants will soon be hoisted, saluting a first-place finish during the 2005 ACC regular season, a top ranking in the final coaches' poll, and the '05 NCAA men's championship.

A grey-haired fan jumped gleefully for the cameras. A panderer from Channel 17 wore Carolina garb. Behind a bank of elevated TV cameras, dozens of preschoolers ran like electrons in endless, seemingly random patterns in a cleared area. Someday the children, reminded by others, will brag they were present when their heroes came home.

The scene was completed by the UNC women's basketball player who appeared briefly onstage wearing a T-shirt with a "Beat Duke" slogan on the back, a reminder of another side to the passions that made victory delicious.

A title-game triumph over Illinois produced North Carolina's fourth men's championship and the first under UNC alumnus Roy Williams. (The women also won a title in 1994, the only one to date for an ACC program.) North Carolina now has accumulated more titles than all but three programs in the history of college basketball, and two of those systematically cheated.

What's more, the championship burnished what is arguably the Triangle's greatest claim to fame. There are surely more important and life-defining topics than basketball upon which to lavish front-page coverage, television and radio air time, mental and emotional energy, and resources of every sort. The area boasts great universities, gifted artists, cutting-edge researchers, beautiful trees and other strengths. We have problems, old and new. Even Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, shilling for a corporation built on usury, assured us in TV ads that ran almost perpetually during the NCAA tournament, "My life is not about playing games."

Yet the games are perhaps the most distinctive element in our rapidly changing, ever-homogenizing region.

Numbers do tell this story, or at least its outlines.

This was UNC's 16th Final Four appearance, more than any other program. Duke, just down U.S. 15-501, has made 14 appearances, tied for second with UCLA. Duke owns three NCAA titles.

UNC and Duke combined to capture two of the last five men's championships and five of the last 15. Duke won in 1991, 1992 and 2001, UNC in 1993 and this year. No league other than the ACC, to which both schools belong, has more than three titles during that period.

Since 1986, a span of 20 seasons, 17 squads of Blue Devils (10) and Tar Heels (7) reached the Final Four, college basketball's benchmark weekend. Seventeen is not only more Final Four appearances than any other two schools during that stretch, but more than any league. The rest of the ACC combined to produce four Final Four entrants in those two decades, with Maryland winning the 2002 championship.

Go back to 1974, when N.C. State won the first of its two national titles, and the numbers become overwhelming. Over the past 32 years the Triangle trio combined for eight NCAA championships, 15 trips to the title game, and 23 Final Four appearances. That's an average of about two Final Four appearances every three seasons, a berth in the championship game every other year, and a title every fourth season.

No wonder we take notice.

This most recent UNC conquest provided a satisfying climax to a compelling, archetypal tale--former royalty reduced to humbling 8-20 poverty in 2002; the return of a prodigal son, reluctantly responding to duty's call after finding happiness elsewhere; a dramatic return to former glory witnessed firsthand by great, aged warriors spawned by the clan, and by Dean Smith, the masterly monarch himself.

Ol' Roy Williams and his rascals, as the coach refers to his players now and again, had quite a season. Even before the games began, the moody McCants attracted unwanted attention by likening the limitations faced by a highly pampered, semi-professional athlete to being imprisoned. Williams quickly held a press conference at which he and McCants did their best to sentence the issue to oblivion.

There was an early oncourt stumble, too, as the Tar Heels lost their opener at lowly Santa Clara. UNC played without point guard Raymond Felton, suspended for one game due to botched paperwork related to an arcane NCAA rule governing his participation in a Raleigh summer league. The loss immediately established Felton's indispensability in a conference touted for its point guards as the 2004-05 season began.

The chastened Heels flew from California to Hawaii, capturing a tournament title at Maui. They returned to handle struggling Indiana on its home court as vocal locals loudly denounced Sean May as a turncoat. His father, Scott May, had starred for the Hoosiers of 1976, the last unbeaten team in college basketball.

UNC returned to Chapel Hill for eight of its next nine games and kept winning, often by overwhelming margins. In all, 14 consecutive victories followed the Santa Clara lesson.

Three players keyed the Carolina squad's transformation in Williams' second season as head coach.

May shed considerable weight during the off-season, and at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, ran the court with uncommon zeal and stamina. May already possessed superior skills and strength. Now he leaped to block shots and dunk the ball, and avoided mental mistakes born of tiredness, traits strikingly absent earlier in his career.

Felton ran the fastbreak with a compelling inevitability, like water running downhill, and North Carolina led the NCAA in point production (88 per game). Felton's aggressiveness sometimes led to maddeningly careless mistakes; eight turnovers at Duke helped sink the Heels. The point guard compensated in part by becoming the most improved outside shooter in the league, converting 10 percent more of his 3-pointers in 2005 (44 percent) than in his two previous seasons combined (34.1 percent.)

Freshman forward Marvin Williams was a revelation. Weaned on a Smith teaching video, he immediately proved to be a great talent polished way beyond his years. His maturity showed in his ready acceptance of a substitute's role. Williams was ultimately voted 2005 ACC rookie of the year, and May and Felton were first team all-conference selections.

Still, talk of greatness and pretensions of superiority seemed premature when the Tar Heels failed their first major road test in mid-January at Wake Forest, the media's preseason favorite to win the ACC. UNC also lost at Duke, where a team decimated by injury, illness and early NBA defections nevertheless cobbled together a surpassingly good season.

A month later, the Heels rallied to beat the Blue Devils at Chapel Hill, assuring a first place finish in the ACC. Then came a lackluster, two-game run in the conference tournament, marked by mediocre defense and intermittent concentration. Duke won the ACC Tournament title, its sixth in seven years, and the Heels and Devils earned two of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAAs.

Duke and N.C. State reached the Sweet 16 before they were eliminated. Nobody eliminated North Carolina.

The title struck a redemptive chord for Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott and Jawad Williams, seniors who rose from the ashes of 2002, the school's first losing season in 40 years. And Roy Williams, among the most respected, well-liked and successful members of his profession in 15 seasons at Kansas, won his first championship in his fifth visit to a Final Four.

Now we await the annual stampede of underclassmen to the NBA. Major personnel losses may occur at UNC, starting with McCants, making it difficult to sustain a challenge to Duke as the contemporary ACC favorite. Some media types already project Duke as the team to beat nationally in 2005-06. N.C. State may be on the rise as well.

However things turn out, fans of basketball excellence have much to look forward to in the Triangle. As usual.

  • Once again, the Triangle is the center of the college basketball universe

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