NEWARK, N.J. -- The NCAA tournament spoils us with its magic. Morehead State. Butler. Two teams from Richmond advance to the Sweet Sixteen. BYU wins two games with a one-man team (and almost wins a third). For a time it can seem like anything is possible in ways that just don't occur in other sports. Sometimes the magic lasts all the way to the end: North Carolina State, Villanova. Sometimes it comes close: Butler.
And sometimes, long before that, the tournament slaps someone with a dose of reality and a cold reminder that form can hold. And in simplest terms, that's what happened Friday night on the floor of the Prudential Center in the East Regional semifinal.
Marquette had been the last of 11 Big East teams invited to the tournament and one of just two from the conference that survived the first weekend, with "upset" wins over Xavier and Syracuse. The Golden Eagles (always will be the Warriors to me, with "Al" on the neckline of their jerseys) came in with 14 losses, tied for the most in the tournament and were made a No. 11 seed. Their coach, Buzz Williams, endlessly spun Texas tales and dropped arithmetic on the masses. (Including the length of his tenure at Marquette, which Friday reached 1,081 days, by Buzz's count).
They were a terrific story, full of toughness and survival instincts and junior college players who nobody else wanted. On Friday night they led North Carolina, 10-8, with just under 13 minutes gone in the game. It was an ugly game early, in which neither team was playing artistically. (There is a temptation here to say it resembled a Big East game, but it was much, much worse than the ugliest Big East slugfest).
Then Marquette didn't score another point for almost nine minutes. In that same span, North Carolina scored 19 to take a 27-10 lead and with 4:41 left in the first half, the game was perilously close to over. "That was probably the best basketball we've played all year," said North Carolina freshman point guard Kendall Marshall. "But we can play better."
That is the critical point. There are two ways to interpret what took place at The Rock (as the building is known): One possibility:
A young, evolving North Carolina team is getting better with every game and every practice. "I hope this is just the next layer in our improvement," said 7-0 junior center Tyler Zeller, who led the Tar Heels with 27 points and 12 rebounds. It's an intriguing possibility.
But there's another possible explanation: After spending all of February and most of March on the NCAA bubble, playing twice a week (or more) for its postseason life, Marquette just ran of gas. It happens. Not always because a team has been fighting to get off the bubble and into the tournament, but sometimes just because it's a long season and every tournament game at the end takes an extraordinary amount of emotion. Richmond went dry and got drilled by Kansas. Even Duke hit the wall on Thursday night in Anaheim. (North Carolina's Marshall, fellow freshman Harrison Barnes and sophomore Dexter Strickland were watching that game together in their hotel room near Newark International Airport: "We were jumping up and down quite a bit," said Strickland). Anyway, hitting the wall. It happens.
Marquette was awful. At one point, the Eagles had made just four of 24 field goal attempts, with eight turnovers. They trailed, 40-15 at the half, and with those statistics, it could have been worse. For this, oddly, you can credit North Carolina's defense. (Oddly, because North Carolina coach Roy Williams loves to coach fast offense. He loves defense somewhat less). The Tar Heels jumped into passing lanes, hedged on screens and made a mess of Marquette's offense. "We talked about playing defense [before the game]" said Barnes. "I thought it was the best defense we've played all year."
Marquette coach Williams credited the Tar Heel D. "They pressure you to the point that when you do initiate offense, it is either off the dribble ... or way too high on the floor." But he also said his own team simply did not perform the way they had been performing. "I thought, we were completely uncharacteristic the entire first half."
So take your pick. North Carolina was very good or Marquette was very bad. Or both. (But don't even bring the second half into the discussion. It's true that Marquette bothered North Carolina with a pressure zone defense in the second half and twice pulled within 14 points in the last 4:23. But: The. Game. Was. Already. Over. North Carolina played like a team that was up 25 at the half).
It's up to Ohio State or Kentucky to figure out whether Marquette simply handed North Carolina a spot in the Elite Eight or if North Carolina, with two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, is still climbing on a learning curve. Two years ago, North Carolina won the national championship with a Tyler Hansbrough/Ty Lawson-led veteran team that ran Michigan State out of Ford Field. In February, Butler coach Brad Stevens was talking about that game and said, "I don't think anybody in the country had any doubt that night about who was the best team I the country."
Then the Tar Heels went backward startlingly, and quickly. They went to the NIT a year ago, which might be nice for Washington State or Northwestern, but is a disaster in Chapel Hill. They struggled for traction early this year until a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech on January 16 compelled Williams to replace Larry Drew, Jr. at point guard with Marshall. It was a brave move, putting a freshman in charge of an already young team. (And Drew transferred in response).
The Tar Heels responded by winning 14 of 15 games until a loss to Duke in the ACC championship game. The Heels had become something formidable. "We really had to play some fantastic basketball down the stretch," said Roy Williams.
They played some fantastic basketball for long stretches against Marquette. Zeller had 12 points and 10 rebounds in the first half. Sophomore John Henson -- 6-10, lanky and at times, freakishly skilled and smooth -- had 12 points and 10 rebounds. Barnes is 6-8 on the wing and his second jump off the floor is as big as his first, a rare quality. Marshall can run the team like a senior.
And yet, what if Marquette had brought more? That remains the question. We saw North Carolina's best in an odd game against a spent opponent. When it was finished, Zeller sat in a folding chair in the Heels' locker holding a 20-ounce cup of disgusting foamy liquid. "Recovery shake," said Zeller. Symbolism there. Recovery from Friday. Do it again Sunday. Then it's real.