Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.
That idea has been the unstated goal for No. 2 seed North Carolina all weekend in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels’ theme in the NCAA tournament’s first weekend is this: Don’t be the story. Don’t be Virginia. Don’t be Arizona. Don’t be a big-time seed that gets bounced out early in humiliating fashion.
The Tar Heels have one more game to win to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth year in a row – a difficult contest against a tall and talented Texas A&M team at 5:15 p.m. Sunday at the Spectrum Center.
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If North Carolina wins, it will be close to a nonstory on a national scale. The Tar Heels are expected to win convincingly in the round of 32, much like Duke did on Saturday. If the Tar Heels lose, though, it will make headlines.
If there was any doubt that sort of upset could happen in Charlotte, the Tar Heels got a stark reminder of it Friday night as they watched No. 16 seed UMBC destroy No. 1 seed Virginia, 74-54, in an instant-classic upset at the Spectrum Center. The North Carolina players were back at their uptown Charlotte hotel by then, but their faces there showed the same sort of shock and awe as the rest of America.
Let North Carolina starter Theo Pinson set the scene. The entire team was downstairs in a hotel meeting room, planning to individually depart to their own rooms to decompress after eating a meal. But they were unable to leave because of what was on the television – and the sense that it was so remarkable that it needed to be a communal experience.
“It’s one of those games you’ll never forget,” Pinson said of UMBC-Virginia. “It’s one of those games where you will be like: ‘Where were you when this happened?’ I was downstairs watching it with all of my teammates.”
Still, no one from the Tar Heels really thought UMBC was going to win until the last five minutes. They knew firsthand - from very recent experience in the ACC tournament final - how good Virginia was. Head coach Roy Williams was so sure of it that he departed for his own room, telling his players when the game was tied 21-21 at halftime: “I’m not watching this. ...There’s no way that’s going to happen.”
And later, when it did: “I was shocked,” Williams said. “I kept thinking (it was) April Fools’ Day or something. I didn’t know what the crap was going on.”
UMBC never trailed in the second half, immediately jumping to a seven-point lead and then extending it again and again.
“We couldn’t understand,” said Pinson, whose Tar Heels went 0-2 against Virginia this season. “I don’t think anybody in the nation could. ...We didn’t think they could actually pull it off. I don’t think anybody did.”
Could Texas A&M do the same sort of thing and knock out Charlotte’s other big name?
That upset wouldn’t be of the same historical significance, of course – the Aggies have a No. 7 seed, boast a likely NBA lottery pick in high-flying forward Robert Williams and come from a major conference. They are bigger than the Tar Heels at many positions.
Still, North Carolina is the team that has made the national final the past two years in a row. The Tar Heels are a six-point favorite and playing in Charlotte, which will make this almost like a home game for them.
So the goal for North Carolina is to make their fans walk out of the arena humming, but in a very ho-hum way. Make it feel like that movie you have a vague good feeling about – but can’t remember the plot – when asked your opinion on it six months later.
Let UMBC have the headlines made in Charlotte once again, if the No. 16 seed Retrievers can pull a second straight upset in the Sunday nightcap at the Spectrum Center.
The Tar Heels don’t need them. They want to make their news in San Antonio at the Final Four in a couple of weeks. Not now.