April 3, 2009

DETROIT (AP) -- The friendship that became a friendly rivalry has been brewing since they were 7.

Ty Lawson of North Carolina and Dante Cunningham of Villanova were teammates back then. The team, based in the Washington area, was called the St. Andrews Magic. The coaches were their dads.

No doubt that even back then, they dreamed of a day like Saturday. They'll both be in the starting lineup in the Final Four -- Lawson the point guard for North Carolina and Cunningham in the frontcourt for Villanova.

"What I remember most about his dad was he was always telling him, 'Bust a move," Lawson said. "Because Dante would get the ball, and he wasn't real aggressive."

That still bugs Cunningham to this day, Lawson said. He'll probably say it a few times on the court come Saturday night.

There was other impressive talent among that group of 7-year-olds, which rarely lost while routinely playing teams with kids who were 9 and 10. Cedric Jackson, the guard who helped Cleveland State beat Wake Forest in the first round of this year's tournament, was on that team. So were a few more kids who went to smaller schools (Bucknell and Siena) that have pulled off NCAA upsets the past few years.

Lawson may have been the best of them all.

"Tywon was always the one with the ball in his hands," Cunningham said. "We were playing an AAU game once. He's dribbling, we're down one with a few seconds left. The coach is saying 'timeout, timeout,' and Tywon just runs down the court, shakes his head 'No' and makes a layup. Game over."

There have been times over the past few years when Lawson's current coach, Roy Williams, wished he could get that kind of shoot-first-think-later mentality from his talented point guard.

It has been Lawson's transformation, from one who liked to distribute to one who would look more for his own shot, that has made a big difference this year and helped bring North Carolina (32-4) back to within two wins of the championship.

Despite playing with a toe injury that has left him at what he says is about 80 percent, Lawson has averaged a bit over 20 in the three tournament games he's played. That's about four over his season average, but might have been even better had North Carolina not been rolling over teams en route to Detroit.

"Some people probably took that as me being lazy, not unselfish," Lawson said of the earlier reluctance to shoot. "I never saw it that way. I was just looking at it as trying to move the ball around more, keep people involved."

Cunningham remembers coach George Lawson, who served on base along with Cunningham's dad, Ron, as the guy who taught him the fundamentals of the game.

"Pretty intense," Cunningham said. "Not yelling and screaming. He wanted us to have fun. But even at that age, he said when you're on the court, you're competing. You're playing. You're trying to win."

That part has pretty much stayed the same, even though the stakes have grown as the years have passed. The Air Force base has turned into Ford Field, with 70,000-plus watching come Saturday.

On paper, this game looks like a bit of a mismatch.

North Carolina is a 7 1/2-point favorite in large part because the Tar Heels have four players -- Lawson, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington -- who are considered NBA draft picks.

All but Hansbrough considered going pro after last season, but none got the feedback from scouts they were hoping for. So, they came back and tried to make another run at a championship.

They can only hope for a better Final Four than last year. They fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the first half, drew within four, but ran out of steam before they could complete the comeback.

"We weren't the same team that had played the whole tournament," Hansbrough said of last year's debacle. "Just a little tight, and once we started playing better, we didn't have the energy to close things out. We've had our lapses, but that's true of any team. Everyone has their ups and downs."

Although North Carolina is a collection of stars, Villanova is looked at more as a team. None of those players are being projected as having big NBA futures. Guard Scottie Reynolds, of course, is already a college star, courtesy of his floor-length dash and layup for the winning basket against Pittsburgh last weekend.

Cunningham leads the team with 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. Reynolds is next with 15.2 points and almost 4 assists a game. But Cunningham is 6-foot-8, 230 pounds (too slight) and Reynolds doesn't fit any typical NBA prototype. Not that they won't have careers playing basketball, they're just not -- well -- like the Carolina guys.

"You hear the people on TV say that and you just can't listen to it," Cunningham said. "I don't feel like we're underdogs. At this point, you just have to look at it like, everyone's on the same plane. We've worked just as hard as they have to get here."