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March 8, 2012

Time is at hand

Carolina coach Roy Williams is tired of swimming upstream against the continuing popularity of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

First of all, Williams is extraordinarily competitive. Therefore, he wants to win the tournament. After the eventually national champion Tar Heels lost in the ACC Tournament in 2005 in Washington, D.C., Williams, downcast, walked back to the hotel.

He has known the elation of winning the official ACC Title. The Tar Heels won it for him in 2007 and 2008.

"In '07 and '08, I was ecstatic that we did win it," Williams said.

But deep down he also knows this is not the ACC Tournament of the 1950s, '60s and about half of the '70s.

Dean Smith used to say it best after the NCAA Tournament grew to 64 teams and the first-place team from the regular season did not have to win it to make the NCAA field.

"You don't know pressure until you have to win three straight days to get in the NCAAs after you have already finished first in the regular season," Smith often said.

He also said the ACC Tournament was so special when one team went to the NCAA Tournament that he held back plays and adjustments just for the ACC Tournament.

The pressure these days is on the teams whose only real chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament is to make it to Sunday or win the ACC Tournament.

Williams echoes what Smith always said UCLA coach John Wooden thought about expanding the tournament, which was it would overshadow the regular season and everything else if it grew to the size it is today.

Anyone who understands the history of the game and what the month of March has become should know Wooden was right.

"The ACC Tournament has been so fantastic for such a long time," Williams said. "But all tournaments are overwhelmed by that other tournament that goes on later. In '05 and '09 we win the national championship, and we didn't win the tournament."

And for all the criticism Williams has taken for prior comments about the ACC Tournament being a glorified cocktail party, he's right.

Yes, it's fun, and Duke has certainly enjoyed winning it so often since the late 1990s.

Nonetheless, look at the Carolina-Duke rivalry.

The team determined to have the best season is not the one who wins the regular season or the ACC Tournament. The team that goes further in the NCAA Tournament, particularly if it makes the Final Four and even wins the national championship, will have had the best year.

Competition between the two at this elite level dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when the stakes grew until Duke won the title in 1991, when UNC lost in the semifinals of the Final Four. The two had pushed it as far as it could go, and the legacy is the NCAA Tournament is now their measuring stick.

Their evolution shows the amazing weight each carries in the game. They regularly enjoy the kind of run that for others would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For Carolina and Duke, it's simply another season.

"You have to be able to pick up your focus, your concentration, just your play in general," ACC player of the year said Tyler Zeller, who owns one national championship ring. "You lose, you're done. For me, it's the end of my college career. I have to do everything I can to keep it for as long as possible.

"We saw last year that all the way through," Zeller said. "Washington was a three-point game. Any team can beat you on any given night. The first round, we didn't play great. They got it down to 10 points at one point. It just shows that a 15 team can give you a run for your money also."

Mental and physical preparation will make the difference, Zeller said.

"It's something we all look forward to," Zeller said. "It's a fun time of the year. You actually have time to prepare. You have time to get your legs back and go play the best you can play.


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