LOS ANGELES -- They joke a lot. The Wisconsin Badgers, who defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 79-72 Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, have become the blue-collar team that has, lately, cracked up the Internet.
They can't walk down the street without making us chuckle.
Earlier this week, Frank Kaminsky interviewed Will Ferrell, the creator of the "Frank the Tank" nickname. Nigel Hayes got a shout-out from Kobe Bryant, whose locker he is occupying this week at the Staples Center. Then Hayes made a comment about a woman's appearance -- he thought she was attractive -- at a news conference without realizing the entire room heard him.
Everybody laugh at and with the Wisconsin Badgers, right?
Until North Carolina had its foot on Wisconsin's neck Thursday night and threatened to ruin the Badgers' pursuit of a second consecutive trip to the Final Four, of course. There were no laughs then. No tweetable hijinks and "Don't you just love Wisconsin?" moments -- only the reality that the NCAA would put the favored Badgers on the first plane back to Madison, Wisconsin, if they couldn't find their way.
To return to the NCAA tournament, a team needs contributions from both returning players and incoming recruits. Here's a look at North Carolina and its chances of dancing again in 2016.
Possible 2015-16 starting five
G: Marcus Paige
G: Justin Jackson
F: J.P. Tokoto
F: Brice Johnson
C: Kennedy Meeks
Sam Dekker starts fast: Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes combined to score 109 points and grab 47 rebounds in their team's first two NCAA tournament games. But in the first half Thursday, Hayes and Kaminsky went 3-for-13 from the field and registered nine points combined. Enter Dekker. The NBA prospect kept the Badgers alive before halftime by scoring 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting before the break. He was the only Wisconsin player who seemed undaunted by North Carolina's length and athleticism in the first half.
Brice Johnson sets the tone: When asked about Kennedy Meeks' injury on Wednesday, Roy Williams said he needed multiple players to step up if Meeks couldn't go. Well, Meeks started the game, but the Tar Heels still needed someone to give them some early energy and production against the Badgers. Johnson did that. He kicked off the game with two monster dunks that drew big cheers from the North Carolina fans at Staples Center. By halftime, he was leading North Carolina with eight points (4-for-6) and a block.
Kaminsky's early struggles: Kaminsky, who finished with 19 points, was just 2-for-7 from the field in the first half. He struggled against North Carolina's length inside. Whenever he touched the ball, UNC had him well covered. Meeks, Joel James and even Justin Jackson were effective in their attempts to shadow the likely Wooden Award winner. He started the second half by making his first two shots, but the Tar Heels continued to harass him. They were clearly going to force another Wisconsin player to beat them.
The ACC helped: From mid-January to mid-March, North Carolina failed to register a signature win. The Tar Heels still entered the NCAA tournament with some momentum based on their finish in the ACC tournament. But their regular season was a roller-coaster ride. Still, the ACC's gantlet put the Tar Heels through a variety of tests that helped them prepare for a matchup against the Big Ten's best team. There is a mental element to this game, especially when you're the underdog. North Carolina wasn't intimidated by the moment, and that was vital as the Heels built up a lead against the Badgers in the second half.
But in the end Wisconsin was too strong. The Badgers are resilient. Dekker played like a top-20 pick. Guys such as Zak Showalter made key plays. Wisconsin isn't a team. It's a program. It came together in a difficult stretch, relied on its experience and overcame a good North Carolina team that should be proud of its effort.
He's averaging 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson, who suffered a fractured foot in early January, played for the first time in more than two months after entering Thursday's game five minutes into the first half.
The Sweet 16 is upon us and we've got you covered from Syracuse to Los Angeles. Keep this page open starting at 7 p.m. ET as our reporters bring your real-time reaction and analysis of all of Thursday's regional semifinal games.
Dean Smith got a chance to thank his players one last time.
The former North Carolina coach, who died last month at 83, directed his trust in his will to give $200 to every letter winner who played for him during his 36 seasons as head coach at the school.
"We never expected anything like this," said Jeb Barlow, who lettered at UNC from 1980-1982. "But it doesn't surprise me that this was done."
The trustee of Smith's trust, Tim Breedlove, told ESPN.com that the $200 checks were sent out on Monday to about 180 letter winners.
"This was the kind of man that he was," Breedlove said. "It's one more example of his thoughtfulness."
The letter addressed to Dante Calabria, who played on Smith's 1993 national title team, was circulated on social media Thursday. Smith's message was to "enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith."
Said Serge Zwikker, who played for Smith from 1993-1997: "My wife opened the letter and handed it to me. At first I didn't know what it was, but when it hit me, it put a tear in my eye. Even after he passed, he was still all about his players."
Buzz Peterson, a roommate of Michael Jordan's when they played for Smith at UNC, also was awed by the gesture.
"I saw the check, and was like, 'What?'" Peterson said. "Then I started reading the letter, and I said, 'Wait now, you've got to be kidding me. This is unbelievable that he would do this for us.'"
Zwikker said that part of him doesn't like the fact that news about Smith's gesture has gone public.
"It's just not the way he would have wanted it," Zwikker said. "I know he would have preferred to keep it quiet."
Zwikker said the $200 check is unlike any other money he has received.
"I don't think I can cash this," he said. "If anything, I will donate it to a good cause."
"He was just calling me Kemba Walker, Shabazz [Napier] as a joke," Paige said, laughing at the references to key Connecticut Huskies who stepped up at tournament time. "But he likes to do that anyway. He gets on my nerves, but that’s my guy."
Maybe Britt was inspired by head coach Roy Williams, who referenced the 2011 Huskies in a postgame celebration during the Heels’ ACC tournament run; both Walker and Napier epitomized how elite-level point guards can impose their will during the NCAA tournament. Or maybe Britt simply was projecting what he saw from how Napier led the Huskies to the title last season. Either way, Britt has repeated the name-calling.
It might only become more frequent if Paige can help North Carolina get past Wisconsin on Thursday and advance to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
Paige has been a different player since the postseason began. He’s averaging 17.0 points and 5.0 assists, which is up from 13.5 and 4.4 during the regular season. His shooting percentage jumped from 40.6 percent in the regular season to 45.3 percent -- all while playing 37 minutes per game, which is nearly five more minutes than he played in the regular season.
"I’m healthy, that’s the biggest part," said Paige, who has improved his 3-point shooting percentage from 38.5 to 41.4. "I’m a little more aggressive than I have been attacking the basket."
And the Huskies similarities? Walker elevated a team that finished ninth in the Big East and parlayed five straight wins to capture the league tournament crown into six straight wins for the national title as a 3-seed. Walker averaged 24.5 points and 5.0 assists in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Napier’s run was even more unlikely, leading the Huskies as a 7-seed to the national championship. Napier averaged 18.7 points and 3.8 assists last postseason.
"When you get to tournament play, I think the [value of] guard play is more exaggerated because they control the basketball so much," Williams said. "And if you have one guy …"
When Williams was an assistant at Carolina in 1984, Steve Alford was that guy for Indiana. Williams believed the Heels were the best team in the country that season and would have beaten any team in a best-of-seven series. But in the one-game urgency of the NCAA tournament, a guard who can control the game often can make the difference.
Paige can be that guy for Carolina.
"I hope so, but I think he’s done that somewhat for three years," Williams said. "We’ve got to get some other guys to step up. Shabazz was phenomenal last year, but [Ryan] Boatright and those other guys really, really played well also."
The biggest difference between Paige and the former UConn guards is they both assumed more ownership of their respective championship teams. (Not to mention got to the free throw line more.) During the regular season especially, Paige could at times be too unselfish.
With the chance to take the lead in regulation of a tie game at Louisville, Paige deferred to J.P. Tokoto taking the shot on their second-to-last possession. During the entire schedule of February games, Paige never led the team outright in shot attempts.
Looks like that has changed. Paige is Carolina’s best player and looks like he’s starting to understand that.
In the Heels’ win over Virginia in the ACC tournament, his up-and-under move against Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted co-defensive player of the year by the league's coaches, helped stop the Cavs’ momentum.
"When it gets intense and it’s a one- or two-possession game," Paige said, "you’re so focused on what’s going on on the court and your sense of urgency is elevated to such a high level that you’re not thinking ‘Oh, this could win the game.’ In the moment, you’re kind of zoned out in a good way -- I guess zoned in is a better way to talk about it."
Had Paige consistently done that in the regular season, he might have lived up to the lofty preseason expectations. Instead, his performances remained low key during the regular season.
A lot of that was due to the plantar fasciitis in his left foot that plagued him for the better part of December through February. It wasn’t until the second-to-last game of the regular season against Georgia Tech, Paige said, that his foot finally was pain free.
His play since then has reflected him being back to full health, but the healed foot is not the only reason he's elevated his play.
Asked about the factors in his improvement, Paige said, "I would say confidence, health and understanding I have to be a playmaker at this time of the year."
The Heels’ postseason fortunes might rest on that understanding.
UNC forward Kennedy Meeks, who sprained his left knee against Arkansas, had limited contact during an early closed practice and then didn't do much during the open practice Wednesday. Coach Roy Williams said the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Meeks -- who has a nearly 30- pound advantage on Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky -- would be a game-time decision if there weren't any complications overnight.
"I'm doing pretty well," said Meeks, who is averaging 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. "I'm jumping a little bit more and trying to do all the right things so I can take care of my knee."
If Meeks can't go, the Tar Heels (26-11) may go small, like they did after Meeks went out against the Razorbacks.
"I don't want to just say when nobody can guard Frank, let's just play, small because that takes away part of our game as our inside scoring," Williams said. "So it is a balance there that you have to have."
The Badgers (33-3) have a question mark on their own roster, with guard Traevon Jackson's status up in the air.
LOS ANGELES -- Kennedy Meeks, who is dealing with a knee injury, remains questionable for Thursday's NCAA tournament matchup between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Wisconsin Badgers at the Staples Center.
Meeks (11.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) is important to this team and Thursday's game. But there is no guarantee that he'll be available.
"We don't know anything about Kennedy," Roy Williams said on Wednesday during the pregame news conferences at the Staples Center. "This morning he did some contact on a limited basis for the first time. You saw him out there, if you chose to go out there, he didn't do much, but our whole team didn't go because we had already practiced. But the big thing now is we'll have to wait to see if there's any more swelling or any pain tonight for what little he did this morning, and probably it won't be -- well, if there is swelling or pain tonight, we won't play him. If there's not, then we'll probably make the decision during warm-ups tomorrow."
Yes, Tokoto has been inconsistent all season. But he's scored more than 10 points 15 times this season and the Tar Heels have an 11-4 record in those games. He's coming off a stellar effort in North Carolina's 87-78 win over Arkansas in the second round (13 points, five rebounds, eight assists and two steals).
"North Carolina's got to come to play," Williams said. "Marcus is a huge part of that, but we need Brice [Johnson] to play. First question, we need J.P. to play, we need all of them to play."
Wisconsin is a strong, balanced team. And the Badgers know plenty about Tokoto and his ability to affect this game.
Bo Ryan and Wisconsin finished second to Williams and North Carolina in the recruiting battle for Tokoto's services. The Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, native pointed to North Carolina's style of play as an important element in his decisions.
"Well, J.P.'s a good friend of mine," Dekker said on Wednesday. "I played AAU with him for four years, so we built a pretty good relationship. And Bronson Koenig, our point guard, is also on that team. So we all know each other really well and our families get along great. Can't tell you the amount of time I've spent with them. So it's exciting to go up against him and be on the same court as him again. Obviously, one of the best athletes I've ever played with and still ever watch. The stuff he does is pretty ridiculous. So just excited to get out there with him. We've talked a little bit this week. We're excited to play, and I'm sure we'll be talking a little bit on the court and just some good banter. But, yeah, it's going to be fun to be out there with him again, but it will be different because we're opposing sides."
Tokoto's side will need his best on Thursday.
The North Carolina Tar Heels face quite a challenge in their Thursday matchup with the top-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the NCAA tournament. But if the Tar Heels do happen to pull off their 12th straight Sweet 16 win, they will certainly do so in style.
That's because Jordan Brand -- we're just going to assume you don't need a reminder of the connection there -- is fitting Carolina with a specialized version of the Air Jordan XX9s for its next game.
And if you plan on watching Thursday's game on television, the UNC sneakers will be hard to miss.
— Eric Hoots (@EHootsUNC) March 25, 2015