It isn't that Jordan and Carter and lots of other North Carolina basketball players weren't tough, but you don't think of them as the 19th century North Carolinians who burned trees into black muck, or tar, that they then spread on the bottom of boats. You don't think of them as part of that North Carolina Civil War lore -- the wrong and losing side, by the way -- where a Confederate troop leader pleaded with his boys to fight with the toughness of those North Carolinians he'd heard about, those Tar Heels.
At least not until now.
There are a lot of reasons the current edition of the Tar Heels' basketball team advanced Saturday night, with a relatively easy 83-69 win over Villanova, to Monday night's national title game in Ford Field against Michigan State. They have an outrageously efficient point guard in the nifty Ty Lawson. They have last season's player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough, manning the middle. They have shooters galore including Danny Green and Wayne Ellington. They have depth at every position and plenty of height.
And they are tough, resilient when need be.
Their toughness is embodied mostly in Hansbrough, a player whose prodigious production is anything but pretty to watch. He is about as fluid as a rock slide but just as destructive to whatever is in his way.
But the Tar Heels' toughness is born out in a most-overlooked aspect of their game: defense.
With all their fine shooters and their high-octane offense, it is understandable that most of us don't notice North Carolina's desire and success at shutting down their opponents, but they've done just that as well as anybody the past few weeks. Guarding shooters. Rebounding. Getting loose balls.
"When I watched Villanova's tapes of the Pitt game, the UCLA game, the Duke game, they had tremendous sense of urgency and chased down everything," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after beating Villanova. "There was one play in the UCLA game where they were up 23 with like six minutes to go, and [Dwayne] Anderson came from behind and dove and slapped the ball loose. I showed that to my team [Friday] night. That's the way we've got to play.
"We talked about it [Friday] night ... about we can't allow somebody to outcompete us on this stage."
They haven't. No team has come close.
Look at what Williams' Tar Heels did Saturday night to Villanova. Look at what they did to Oklahoma last weekend.
Once would be an aberration. Twice is a trend.
Villanova was known for the marksmen it employed from beyond the three-point line, like guards Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher. All told, Villanova made five of 27 attempts from beyond the arc. A weekend ago, Oklahoma came into its game against North Carolina after having shot the lights out against Syracuse. Against the Tar Heels, they shot as if the lights actually were out.
Villanova on Saturday was held below its averages in almost all offensive categories. The same was true of Oklahoma a weekend ago.
Offense isn't the reason these Tar Heels are the first Tar Heels tournament team ever to beat opponents by an average of at least 12 points. Defense is the reason.
Case and point: After the Wildcats quickly clawed out of a double-digit hole they'd been in most of the game early in the second half, the Tar Heels responded most pointedly with their defense. They forced a turnover from Wildcats guard Reggie Redding, successfully contested a layup by Reynolds and allowed the next few shots the Wildcats got off to come from no closer than the three-point line. They all went astray.
The next thing the Wildcats knew, they were staring up at a mountainous lead the Tar Heels had built again. They never mounted another challenge.
"What it really came down to is we got stops and got the lead back up to where we wanted it to be," Ellington said of halting the momentary bleeding.
There was some real blood from the Tar Heels on Saturday, too. Hansbrough -- who most famously bled two seasons ago after a flagrant elbow from Duke's Gerald Henderson broke his nose -- left the game briefly to have a cut hand treated. It was amazing he didn't suffer more such injuries from the times he was knocked or tossed down. Still, he finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and a game-high four steals. Eight of his points came from trips to the free-throw line, something he's done more than anyone in the country this year. That's tough.
The Tar Heels couldn't be drawing on this resolve at a more opportune time. It isn't just that they are doing so in the tournament. It is that they are doing so as they prepare to go into the ultimate game against a team that may be the toughest of all, Tom Izzo's Spartans, which Izzo happily calls a blue-collar team than represents their blue-collar state where this Final Four is being held.
We already knew the Tar Heels were talented enough to win this whole thing. They've proved now they are tournament-tough enough, too.
Kevin B. Blackistone is a panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and a former award-winning sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.