North Carolina technically plays Villanova in its opening game of the NCAA tournament.
That is not, however, the matchup everyone will focus on when they look at the Tar Heels’ road to the Final Four out of the South Region.
If No. 8 seed UNC (24-10) beats the ninth-seeded Wildcats (20-13) on Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, it will likely face top-seeded Kansas (29-5) less than 40 miles from its campus in Lawrence. The Jayhawks open the NCAA tournament with Western Kentucky (20-15), but a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed in tournament history.
The potential UNC-KU matchup is the sort of made-for-TV drama that will pull serious and casual college basketball fans alike. UNC coach Roy Williams has faced his former school twice since returning to Chapel Hill in 2003, losing to the Jayhawks in the Final Four in 2008 and the Midwest regional final last season.
The Tar Heels might have expected to be higher than a No. 8 seed after a strong performance in the ACC tournament and a compelling close to the season.
As the third seed in the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels lost to Miami 87-77 in the championship game Sunday, almost using a 28-point effort by P.J. Hairston to catapult to a title that would have been almost inconceivable one month ago.
After an 87-61 loss at Miami on Feb. 9 and a five-point defeat at Duke in its next game, UNC won eight of its next nine games to alter the trajectory of its season. Before that streak, the Tar Heels were 16-8 and only 6-5 in the ACC.
“Just knowing that we’ve came such a long ways (is a good feeling),” senior guard Leslie McDonald said. “We’ve really transformed ourselves into being a great caliber team. I think we’re more focused and serious, and we’re just a ferocious team. It took some hard times, but we’ve got to where we wanted to be.”
Added Williams: “Our players did exactly what I thought they would do – they worked hard and got better and better as the year progressed. Making the field is a reward for their continued improvement. We look forward to hopefully playing our best basketball this coming weekend.”
While there is the tendency at this time of the season to focus on what’s ahead, Williams hopes his team spent at least some time Sunday digesting its performance against the Hurricanes.
“I told my guys I didn’t ever want to walk in there and say, ‘Ok, guys, it’s over with – we’ll see the selection show on TV at 6,’” Williams said before the bracket was released. “Because I want guys to hurt and learn from it. So if we get an opportunity again, it will be even more important to them.”
While the potential matchup with Kansas might already be dancing through the minds of some fans, the Tar Heels will first have to contend with the Wildcats.
Villanova comes into the NCAAs having lost to Louisville 74-55 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, although the Wildcats were one of five teams to defeat the top-ranked Cardinals this season, beating Louisville 73-64 in January. Villanova got into the tournament despite its 13 losses largely on the strength of that victory and wins over Georgetown and Syracuse.
Sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston leads the Wildcats in scoring, averaging 13.1 points per game, but at times this season, Villanova coach Jay Wright has bemoaned his team’s lack of athletic guards.
“That’s our weakness as a team,” Wright said to the Philadelphia Daily News after the Wildcats lost to Louisville in the Big East tournament. “We don’t have that jet guard who can just break down a defense. We have to do it by passing and precision and execution.”
Without strong guard play, Villanova ranks 295th nationally in 3-point defense and 292nd in assist-to-turnover ratio.
While UNC only ranks 55th in 3-point shooting percentage, the 13 3-pointers it hit against Miami in the ACC final shows how streaky it can be with its long-range shooting.
Before the bracket was announced, UNC’s was in relatively good spirits, even after the loss to Miami, with the Tar Heel players talking about how far they’ve come over the last month.
“We just wanted to come out with the mindset that we’re a better team than we showed last time,” Reggie Bullock said. “We had a great opportunity to earn a ring and win an ACC tournament championship. And they probably outplayed us for the last five or six minutes of the game, but other than that, it was a dog fight.”
Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed to this report.