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UNC travels to Raleigh for N.C. State game and could be back for NCAAs

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/25/20/04/UjNSa.Em.138.jpeg|432
    Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    UNC's Marcus Paige (5) celebrates after sinking a three-point basket to pull North Carolina within one point of Duke 57-56 with 5:30 to play in the game on Thursday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/22/14/15/h5w97.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    UNC's Brice Johnson drives to the basket past Wake Forest's Coron Williams (13) and Travis McKie in the first half at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

CHAPEL HILL North Carolina plays at N.C. State in Raleigh on Wednesday night, and if the Tar Heels play well enough between now and the start of the NCAA tournament there’s a good chance they’ll be back in PNC Arena in about 21/2 weeks.

The arena is a host site for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, and during the Tar Heels’ bleaker days – when they were in the midst of a 1-4 start in the ACC, searching for some kind of momentum and direction – it seemed unlikely UNC would begin the tournament so close to home.

Now, though, the Tar Heels have won nine consecutive games. Each victory solidifies their postseason resume, and after their victory against then-No. 5 Duke last Thursday, starting the NCAA tournament in Raleigh seems a more realistic possibility for UNC.

Not that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has given that much thought. At least he says he hasn’t. Williams on Tuesday professed ignorance of the location of the ACC tournament – it happens to be in Greensboro – let alone early-round NCAA tournament host sites.

“I’ve never looked,” he said. “I can’t tell you one site. Evidently, is there a site in North Carolina? I’ll shoot craps. I’ll play golf for money. I’ll do (anything). I couldn’t guarantee a bet of where the crap it is.”

Duke, despite its loss at UNC, is considered to have a stronger case than UNC to start its NCAA tournament run in Raleigh. The NCAA tournament selection committee, though, can send the Blue Devils and Tar Heels to Raleigh – in different regions, of course – and that’s a likely scenario if UNC continues to play well.

Duke and UNC most recently began their tournament journeys in the same location in 2012 at Greensboro Coliseum. The Blue Devils lost to Lehigh in the round of 64 while UNC advanced to the Midwest Regional semifinals in St. Louis, where it ultimately lost against Kansas.

Speculation about tournament projections and seeding is unavoidable in college basketball this time of year, though some UNC players said they try their best to avoid it. Senior guard Leslie McDonald said he doesn’t follow the projections. He said he’d just heard on Tuesday that UNC is back in the top 25 at No. 19.

Kennedy Meeks, a freshman forward from Charlotte, used to follow the so-called bracketologists.

“I could say before I got here, I did pay attention to it,” he said. “But now I don’t. Just go out there and play. Whatever happens, happens.”

After playing against the Wolfpack, UNC has games remaining against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame – two of the worst teams in the ACC – before finishing the regular season at Duke. By then, it’s likely to be clear whether the Tar Heels have done enough to earn the right to start the NCAA tournament 25 miles from campus.

“It is an advantage,” Williams said. “There’s no question about that. But it’s not a guarantee. I still remember (in 1995) everybody at Kansas had tickets to the Final Four – we were playing in Kansas City. And Virginia came and they kicked our butts and we went back home. So I’ve never forgotten that.

“And if I coach 188 more years, I will remember that to the bottom of my soul, because the players started thinking about that kind of crap, too. And you’ve heard me say this – you start looking down the road, that’s where you’re going. Down the road back home.”

McDonald, Meeks hobbled: McDonald and Meeks, both starters, were recovering from injuries Tuesday, and Williams was unsure how much they’d contribute at N.C. State.

McDonald said he had been dealing with pain in his left ankle since Sunday. Meeks suffered a hyper-extended knee and sprained ankle in the victory against Wake Forest on Saturday. Both said they expected to play at N.C. State.

Carter: 919-923-8235; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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