Monday March 30th, 2009

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The number stretched the entire length of the dry ease board in the North Carolina locker room, its grand size reflective of the importance it conveyed: 4. Roy Williams wrote that number in black marker in the celebration following the Tar Heels' 72-60 thumping of Oklahoma at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, underscoring to his players that there are only four teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament.

"We won't be satisfied until that number in our locker room reads one," said Wayne Ellington as he glanced at the board. "Tonight was our best defensive performance of the season. If we keep playing like this, we'll be tough to be beat."

Yes they will. The Tar Heels have been criticized in many quarters this season -- including by their own coaching staff -- for their indifferent play on defense. But North Carolina completely flummoxed OU with its D. The Tar Heels continually collapsed on likely player of the year Blake Griffin, forcing him to pass. When he did, the Carolina defenders were able to rotate to the open man, forcing another pass. This run-at-you defense caused several turnovers and two shot-clock violations in the first half.

"Defense wins championships," said Ellington. "We proved that tonight."

1. When Danny Green is hitting his shots, North Carolina is virtually unstoppable. Some 45 minutes after the final buzzer blew, Green sat on a folding chair in the Carolina locker room with one of the nets draped around his neck. It was a befitting token, considering that over the last two games here in Memphis he's been -- for my money -- the Tar Heels' most valuable player.

On Sunday he started fast, hitting two quick three-point shots and another floater in the lane. His accuracy from beyond the arc forced Oklahoma to stretch its defense, which opened up room inside for Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson. Two nights after Green poured in 13 points against Gonzaga, he scored 18 against the Sooners.

"I'm not saying we're impossible to beat when Danny is hitting his shots, but it just makes us that much harder to defend," North Carolina assistant coach Joe Holladay said after the game. "Danny does it all: shoot, rebound, make great passes, defend, block shots, make steals. He's what we call our 'stat-stuffer.'"

2. Blake Griffin is the best player in the country. Despite facing constant double- and triple-teams, Griffin authored another monster game. He scored a game-high 23 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and was the sole reason Oklahoma didn't lose by more than 12. If the Sooners had gotten anything out of deep threats Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson -- they were a combined 3-for-13 from the field, including 0-for-7 from beyond the arc -- perhaps OU could have made a game out of it. Instead, the Sooners kind of played like the school's football team in recent BCS games: they were completely out-manned.

"He is LeBron James-like," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams of Griffin after the game. "He's got such a package of strength, explosiveness, touch, power. You know, it's hard to match that."

This was likely Griffin's last college game. Though the Sooner has two years of eligibility remaining, most NBA scouts project him to be the top pick in NBA draft. Griffin had a spectacular run in the tournament, but ultimately he couldn't pull a Carmelo Anthony and carry his team to the national title.

3. Ty Lawson isn't 100 percent, and maybe that's a good thing. Could it be possible that Lawson's injured right big toe, which caused him to miss the first-round game in the tournament, has actually made him a better player? It is. The injury has forced him to slow down a few miles per hour on the court, and he acknowledges that he's playing under as much control now as he has all season. On Sunday, it sure looked like he was operating at the height of his powers: He scored 19 points on six of 13 shooting, dished out five assists and committed only one turnover.

Oklahoma's Willie Warren. Though he struggled early, Warren turned it on down the stretch and briefly put a tiny scare in the Tar Heels. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound Warren hit several acrobatic shots, including a windmill slam that was the stuff of a dunk contest, and finished with 18 points. If he had been as productive over the entire 40 minutes as he was over the last five, the tenor of the game would have been radically different.

One of the top first-year players in the country and the unanimous Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Warren told SI.com's Luke Winn that he's "98.9" percent sure that he's returning to Norman next season. We'll see. The NBA will be tempting, especially considering that Blake Griffin (the NBA draft) and Taylor Griffin (graduation) will likely be gone next season.

The Tar Heels play Villanova on Saturday in the second game of the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit. I think the national championship is North Carolina's to lose. The Tar Heels have the nation's best point guard (Lawson), one of the three best post players in the nation (Hansbrough), a lethal deep threat (Green), and on Sunday they played their best defensive game of the year. Sure, Carolina is beatable -- but only if the Tar Heels have an off night.

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