Three years ago, North Carolina was 8-20 and a program in chaos. When Roy Williams came from Kansas last year, things were only marginally better. The Tar Heels went 19-10, and a second-round loss to Texas prevented them from getting to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year.
That's not acceptable in Chapel Hill. And when former Tar Heel greats hit town in August for a charity game run by ex-Carolina star Jerry Stackhouse, they gave the current players a piece of their mind.
Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, George Lynch and Shammond Williams all had their say. The message: It's about the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.
Tar Heels center Scott May remembers the lecture well and says it was a key moment in helping the team bond and start its run to tonight's championship game against Illinois.
"They said, 'We are sick of watching you play like this. You are too good and too talented to be representing the university the way you are,' " May said Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome. "Former players love the university, and they love the jersey they wore. It meant a lot to us. We didn't realize we were disappointing so many people, and it brought this team closer together."
"They weren't angry but they were disappointed because we weren't a team, and that's what Carolina basketball is supposed to be about," added guard Raymond Felton. "I'm glad they did it. It showed us they care about us and love us and wanted us to do well. Once I leave Carolina, I'll definitely come back and talk to young kids, too, and encourage them."
The message was directed the strongest at guard Rashad McCants, who butted heads with Roy Williams much of the year and alienated fans by saying that playing in Chapel Hill was like being in prison.
"I heard what they said, and it gave us a lot of motivation to get out there and play our best ball," McCants said. "We were confused with the way how we wanted to win. We didn't see the big picture as far as getting away from individual accolades instead of winning for North Carolina."
The enigmatic McCants sparred with reporters during the individual interview session each Final Four starter holds with the media the day before the championship game.
"You guys talk and write about all the things I do wrong, and I go and try and change them, and you still write about other things," he said. "I don't pay attention to it. I just play for myself and my teammates."
During an earlier group interview session, Williams admitted it was difficult last year to try to get McCants to shed his label as a selfish player. Their on-again, off-again relationship reached its nadir when Williams threw McCants off the Carolina bench for not cheering for teammates during a game against UNC-Wilmington.
When his coach was asked about the situation, McCants leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling in disgust. Williams then said McCants' attitude is much improved and his player has been unfairly portrayed.
"He's the most scrutinized player I've ever had on one of my teams," Williams said. "Earlier this year, (North Carolina State star) Julius Hodge reached over and untied (Tar Heels freshman) Marvin Williams' shoe at the free-throw line, and you know what everybody did? Everybody giggled. If that had been Rashad, everybody would say, 'He lost it again.'
"It's not fair. Now I know he's brought some of it on. But I tell you what, it's the most unfair rap that I've ever been around a player. How did I do, Rashad?"
McCants gave his coach a thumbs-up signal and didn't say a word.
Going to Illinois was actually the second choice for standout Illini point guard Deron Williams, who was rebuffed as a high school senior out of suburban Dallas.
"I wanted to go to North Carolina all my life, but it didn't happen," Williams said. "They recruited me a little bit, but I guess I was a second option to Felton. My mom was a Carolina fan, and I guess she got me started on that. It was the team I liked."
Saturday's games marked the fifth time in six years both national semifinals were decided by at least nine points. The only recent nail-biter in the semis came last year in San Antonio, where Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State by two points on Will Bynum's buzzer-beater and Connecticut overcame Duke by one. . . . Tonight's game is the seventh final pitting the teams that finished Nos. 1 and 2 in the Associated Press poll. The top two teams have split the previous six meetings. . . . When he takes the floor tonight, Roy Williams will become the third coach to lead two teams to the championship game. The others are Larry Brown (UCLA in 1980, Kansas in 1988) and Frank McGuire (St. John's in 1952, North Carolina in 1957). . . . Illinois' 12 three-pointers in Saturday's win over Louisville were one short of the Final Four record of 13 set by UNLV in a 1987 semifinal loss to Indiana in New Orleans. . . . Carolina's second-half comeback against Michigan State snapped its four-game losing streak in the Final Four. Since winning the title in 1993, the Tar Heels were semifinal losers in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2000.