For a team that was not even sure it would have a winning record this year, Carolina has suddenly put itself in position to hoist another trophy.
While there will not be helicopters following the Tar Heels' bus home from the airport as they were a year ago when UNC won the NCAA championship, there would be plenty of smiling faces if Carolina could pull this off in New York this week. To do it, the Tar Heels will have to start by defeating a Rhode Island team that defeated Virginia Tech 79-72 in Blacksburg, Va., in the Rams' last game.
The winner will play the winner of the Mississippi-Dayton game on Thursday for the title.
Playing in the NIT may have had the feel of slumming to some of the Carolina players and many of the fans at the outset of this tournament, but nothing could be further from the truth for Rhode Island. The Rams would be overjoyed to beat the defending national champions in route to an NIT championship.
UR freshman Akeem Richmond is from Sanford. Richmond was a ball boy for the Tar Heels as a kid, and now he has the opportunity to play against his home-state team.
"Never in a million years would I have thought I would get the chance to play against them," Richmond said. "It's been such a blessing, and it's just amazing. Words can't even describe it. After we beat Virginia Tech and the matchup was set, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
"It's great. We get to play North Carolina at Madison Square Garden. I don't know which one is better. Playing them or playing at the Garden. We just get the best of both worlds."
Coach Roy Williams is happy. That is for sure. This three-game run to New York has not wiped away the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament, but it's given the players and the coaches so much more to feel good about in the off-season, and they would like to add an NIT title to that.
"We're pleased to still be playing," Williams said. "Our team has played awfully hard. I'm so proud of them the last couple of games. It's something we have to build habits on."
Rhode Island (26-9) has some nice habits. While UNC is trying to construct a habit of not committing unforced turnovers, the Rams already have that down to an art. Rhode Island commits just 11 turnovers per game. Rhode Island is tied for fifth nationally turnover margin (+4.7), tied for 11th in turnovers per game (10.7), 13th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.38:1), 34th in blocks per game (4.9 bpg), 36th in scoring (76.3 ppg), 42nd in steals per game (8.1) and 48th in assists per game (14.9). And the Rams like to run.
This means Rhode Island is unlikely to make the kind of errors UNC has made so often this season to beat itself. In a game against Nevada, the Rams committed just two turnovers. This senior class has won more games (90) than any class in school history.
Senior guard Keith Cothran leads Rhode Island with 14 points per game. He also averages two assists. Junior forward Delroy James averages 13 points and five rebounds. Senior Lamonte Ulmer leads the team with 7.4 rebounds per game and is the third-leading scorer with 11.9 points per game.
Richmond can shoot from long range. He is fourth nationally among freshman in three-pointers made with 81.
Most of the Tar Heels (19-16) have been playing better of late. John Henson has made huge contributions on defense and in scoring, while Larry Drew made the winning basket against Mississippi State and then another big drive to the bucket for two points in the victory against Alabama Birmingham to send UNC to New York. Drew has also been doing better with his turnover-to-assist ratio. In the last eight games, he has 51 assists (6.4 per game) to 23 turnovers.
The rest of the team has followed suit. The defense has improved dramatically. The Tar Heels have held all three of their NIT opponents to under 42 percent shooting from the floor.
All of this adds up to a better finish than many of us could ever have imagined. Rather than face a losing season, Carolina has now put itself in position to win 20 games again. Carolina has won at least 20 games 51 times in its 100th season.