GLENDALE, Arizona — Since falling to Villanova on a last-second 3-pointer in last year's national championship game, North Carolina's returning players have kept in touch through a text message group.
Its tag: "Redemption."
So, yes, the Tar Heels are on a mission as they take on Oregon in Saturday's NCAA Tournament semifinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"We've used that as motivation for all the games we've played in this season," senior forward Isaiah Hicks said Thursday during the Final Four media availability. "To get back here, get to that last game and come out with a win."
North Carolina must first conquer Oregon to get into position for its sixth national championship. Oddsmakers are making the Tar Heels (31-7) a slight favorite to knock off the Ducks (33-5) and secure a date with the Gonzaga-South Carolina winner in Monday night's final.
It has already been a tremendous season for Oregon, with a school record for victories and the first Final Four appearance since the "Tall Firs" swept to the first NCAA championship in 1939. If the season ends Saturday, the Ducks have made it one to remember.
But coach Dana Altman is not letting his lads off that easily.
"After the Elite Eight win over Kansas, Coach (Altman) said, 'Enjoy it for 24 hours, then on to the next one,'" junior forward Dillon Brooks said. "You don't sit and gloat on one thing. That's where you get ahead of yourself. Now we're focusing on winning Saturday, and then trying to win a national championship."
The Ducks really are. And they really have a chance to knock off one of the storied programs in college basketball, just as they did last weekend at Kansas City.
North Carolina is in its record 20th Final Four. Coach Roy Williams is in his fifth Final Four, with two titles under his belt. And, yes, the Tar Heels came within an eyelash of winning a year ago, which increases the motivation level.
But the Ducks want it, too, after being eliminated one step from the Final Four last season.
"We want redemption after making it to the Elite Eight," Brooks said. "We've faced a lot of hot teams, a lot of teams that have motivation, like Michigan and Kansas.
"We like to crush that all down and try to play our game and be confident in ourselves. We have motivation to try to be the best team in the country."
North Carolina has veterans and plenty of experience, with three juniors and two seniors in the starting five. The Tar Heels feature 6-8 small forward Justin Jackson, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. They have great size, with 6-10 center Kennedy Meeks and 6-9 power forward Isaiah Meeks on the starting front line and 6-10 freshman Tony Bradley behind them. They're the No. 1 rebounding team in the country, outboarding opponents by a whopping 13 per game.
"The rebounding battle is probably going to be what decides the game, that and our defensive transition," Altman offered. "We have to get back and get our defense put together, because they have a wonderful transition team.
"(North Carolina's) production from offensive rebounds is tremendous. Rebounding has to be a priority to everyone who is on the floor for us."
I asked Williams if he agrees with Altman that the boards might decide Saturday's game.
"I would always pick rebounding as the most significant factor in determining who wins a game," he said. "I think the game is pretty simple. The only way to get more opportunities is to get more offensive rebounds to get another shot. We try to focus on it every year.
"But when you get here, there are four really good teams, really well-rounded teams. There's really no weakness in any of the teams. So it's not like you can say, 'If we do this, we're going to win the game because this is such a huge problem for them.' I don't think you can do that. At least I haven't found anything on that about Oregon."
Williams is right. The Ducks can rebound with anyone. They've outboarded six of their seven opponents in the postseason, even without injured reserve center Chris Boucher.
The Tar Heels saw Oregon at the Maui Invitational in November. The Ducks, going without the injured Brooks, lost 65-61 to Georgetown in their opener while North Carolina went on to beat Wisconsin in the title game.
"They were not what everybody was saying Oregon was going to be," Williams said. "Since then, they're 31-3. And that's pretty dadgum impressive.
"What scares me is how everybody on that team can score, with Brooks and Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell. They're so athletic. I try to figure out who in the dickens do I have who can guard them. They present a lot of problems. And I see a guy on the bench (Altman) who I have tremendous respect for. He has a team playing the way he wants them to play, and they're really well-balanced."
The coaches go back to the early '90s, when Williams was head coach at Kansas and Altman was in the first seat at rival Kansas State. Over a four-year period, they played 10 times, with Williams winning eight. But one of Altman's wins was a 68-64 upset on the road when the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1 during the 1994 season.
Gonzaga's Mark Few was honored here Thursday as Associated Press Coach of the Year, and it was well-deserved. But Altman could have won the award just as easily. He will not be outcoached by one of the legends in the business on Saturday.
The Oregon-North Carolina matchup starts at forward with Jackson going against Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Jackson said whoever is matched up against Brooks will focus on denying him the ball.
"You have to make it as hard as possible for him to get touches," Jackson said. "He's a great player, an All-American. It's easier to guard a guy like that when he doesn't have the ball. As much as we can, we have to make it hard for him to touch it."
Of all the North Carolina players, Meeks seems the most well-versed on the Ducks.
"They're a totally different team now from when we were at Maui together," Meeks said. "Without Brooks, they struggled. They have him back now, and he's deserving of being the player of the year in that conference. He's a great defender, all-around player and teammate.
"They did a tremendous job against Kansas. The work they put in without Boucher was impressive. Bell is a great player. Dorsey is hot. They have a hell of a coach. We have to be prepared for those guys."
Bell will hold the Tar Heels accountable on the boards. He was a man possessed against Kansas, ringing up 11 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocked shots and four assists in 34 head-banging minutes. He is averaging 12.5 rebounds in his last six games.
"Jordan has risen to the occasion," Altman said. "When Chris went down, there was going to be more pressure on him to perform. Fortunately for us, he has handled that pressure very well."
The X factor might be Dorsey, who has earned the title "Mr. March" with his play in the postseason — seven straight 20-point-plus games.
"Tyler has been on a tear, no doubt about it," Altman said. "The thing that really got him going, our last game against Oregon State on the road, he scored only one point (on 0-for-4 shooting). We had a big win (80-59), so we didn't need him to score a lot. But it refocused him."
The Tar Heels may have trouble slowing down Dorsey. And they may be without their point guard, junior Joel Berry, who is hobbled by two sprained ankles.
"He did nothing full-court today," Williams said. "We might let him go full-court (Friday). But I can't let him play on Saturday if he can't do something full-court (Friday). If he can't do anything up and down, then I can't let him play."
The Ducks will have an advantage with their perimeter players.
"We hope that we're quicker, but (the Tar Heels) are a very athletic team," Altman said. "It's a tough matchup for us all the way around. We hope to make it a tough matchup for them with spreading the floor a little bit and hopefully using some quickness."
The Ducks are playing their best defense of the season. That's going to be a factor Saturday. The Tar Heels, like the Jayhawks, will have trouble putting the ball in the basket.
It will be a battle. When it's said and done, the ghosts of Laddie Gale, Slim Wintermute and John Dick will be smiling down on the court at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The pick here: Oregon 74, North Carolina 71.
Redemption will go to the Ducks.