Tournament Tales: Wayne Ellington

March 21, 2013
Wayne Ellington

On Thursday afternoon, the eagerly-anticipated NCAA Tourney tips off and one of the greatest spectacles in sports is off and running for the next three weekends.

Several members of the Wine and Gold have been a big part of March Madness. And some Cavaliers, like Wayne Ellington, have been to the summit.

As a freshman from the Philadelphia area, Ellington started all 38 games for the ACC Champion Tar Heels. As a sophomore, Ellington’s game took a big jump, and his loaded North Carolina squad advanced to the Final Four before falling to Kansas. Ellington led the team in scoring with 18 points in the loss. He considered entering the NBA Draft, but decided to return for his junior season and a shot at the National Championship.

In his final season in Chapel Hill, Ellington and his mates did exactly that – and in extremely convincing fashion.

The Tar Heels – a team that featured Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green aside from Ellington – rumbled through the South Regional bracket, thumping opponents Radford, LSU, Gonzaga and Oklahoma by an average of 22 points.

North Carolina topped Villanova to reach the title game at Ford Field in Detroit, where two Hall of Fame coaches – Tom Izzo and Roy Williams – faced off. But the game didn’t live up to the hype – and that was fine by Ellington and Co. North Carolina ran out to a 25-point lead, saw Michigan State close to within 13 in the second half, then pull away for the convincing 89-72 win.

In that title run, North Carolina became the first team in Tournament history to beat each of its opponents by at least a dozen points.

Ellington – who went 7-for-10 from long-distance in the Final Four – was named the Tourney’s Most Outstanding Player. A few months later, he was a first-round pick with for the Timberwolves.

In the first Tournament Tale of the season, the Cavaliers sharpshooter talks about North Carolina’s magical run ….

What was your experience like as a freshman in the NCAA Tournament with a team like North Carolina?

Wayne Ellington: There was definitely a lot of pressure – something that I experienced for the first time. But it was a lot of fun as well. It was a great experience.

What went into your decision to come back after your sophomore season?

Ellington: To win it – simple as that. We had come in together. Myself, Tywon (Lawson), Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, We wanted to come back and we wanted to win it. We felt like we were right there, but fell just a little bit short.

But we felt like the experience that we gained and how much better we were going to get over the summer, we thought we’d have all the chances in the world to come back and win the Championship.

That team was loaded. What were practices like? Tyler Hansbrough breaking guys’ noses?

Ellington: (laughs) Ask young fella! Ask Tyler Zeller. He battled with him in practice all the time.

It was a lot of fun but we went hard in practices. We treated our practices like a game. When we got in a game it was easy for us. Coach (Williams) made us practice like that. We ran up and down. You see how fast Carolina played; we did that in practice, but probably faster.

We had a great group of guys who understood how to play the game and how to win.

As good as that team was, did you think you’d blow through the Tournament like you did?

Ellington: No! And we didn’t think it was going to be like that. We were preparing ourselves for the way we lost against Kansas the previous year. They got us pretty good.

So when we came into that Tournament, we had one mindset and one focus and everybody had the same focus. And I feel like that’s why we dominated the way we did.

As the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, what was that run like for you personally?

Ellington: It kind of started in the ACC Tournament for me. Tywon wasn’t playing because of his toe injury, and that opened up a lot for me. I just had to be more aggressive for our team.

And I felt like it really started in the ACC Tournament. I was really dialed in and I caught a nice rhythm and it just carried over to the NCAA Tournament.

You started the 2009 in Greensboro, NC. That had to be a nice place to get it started.

Ellington: It was unbelievable. It was like playing a home game. And that’s what we were playing for. We wanted to make sure we got that No. 1 seed so we could start out at home.

Things evened out in the Championship Game – Michigan State at Ford Field.

Ellington: Yeah, that was like a home game for them. But our North Carolina fans, they go wherever we go. So it was a packed house for us as well.

North Carolina alumni are famously involved with the program after they leave. Is there some pressure that comes with that?

Ellington: I wouldn’t say pressure; it’s more of an encouragement thing. It’s more like a family; it’s because they care. They come back because they want to see us get better. They want to see us do well, that’s the reason that they come back. So I wouldn’t really say pressure.

When you’re coming in, there’s some pressure there because you’re young and you see all these guys around. And you want to live up to your expectations. So when you’re young, there’s some pressure there, but it fades away.

Did you know right away that you wanted to be a Tar Heel?

Ellington: After my visit, there was no question. It was an easy decision.

Actually, at first, it was tough because my runner-up was Villanova and that was my hometown school. And Kyle Lowry was one of my good friends and he was going there. (They went to the Final Four that year, too.)

It was a tough decision at the beginning, but once I went to Chapel Hill for my visit, that sealed the deal.

How soon after getting there before you met Jordan?

Ellington: I actually met MJ in high school. I played in the Michael Jordan All-American Game in New York. And that was one of the first things he said when he saw all of us: ‘Where’s my North Carolina boys at?’

So I got a chance to meet him early.

How real is North Carolina player’s dislike for Dukies?

Ellington: (laughs) We don’t really like those guys that much. I mean, we’re cool to each other after we leave school. But while we’re in school, we really don’t like those guys that much.

It’s funny, my best friend who I played in high school with – Gerald Henderson – we went to those rival schools, and it was kind of different. We were still best friends, but we didn’t keep in touch as much when we got to school. We had to draw the line.

What makes Roy Williams such a great coach?

Ellington: I feel like what sets him apart is how he prepares us for life outside of just basketball. He shows us how to be successful in life. And it’s the little things – attention to detail – that makes us more than basketball players.

What’s your outlook for the Tar Heels in this year’s Tournament?

Ellington: It’s gonna be some work for them. It starts in the ACC Tournament. I’ve been watching them since the beginning of the year. They have a chance to make some noise. And they’ve continued to get better as the season’s gone on, so I’m excited to see what happens.