PNC Arena could be an interesting place to be this week for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina will be there. So will Virginia, although not playing the Tar Heels.
Butler guard Tyler Lewis, who once played in the arena for N.C. State, will be coming back. It’s also possible Tom Abatemarco, an assistant coach for Jim Valvano on the Pack’s 1983 NCAA championship team, could return to Raleigh.
The Tar Heels and Cavaliers settled the ACC championship Saturday in Washington, the Tar Heels claiming the conference title with some lockdown defense. Both were made No. 1 seeds Sunday when the NCAA Tournament field was announced – UNC the top seed in the East Regional and Virginia No. 1 in the Midwest.
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On Saturday, UNC coach Roy Williams said the Tar Heels would gather at his house Sunday to watch the NCAA selection show on CBS, saying they would be munching on “brownies, shortcake and banana pudding.” Instead, they gathered at the Smith Center, but they’ll have to wait until Tuesday to learn their opponent in their NCAA opener Thursday, as Florida Gulf Coast and Fairleigh Dickinson meet in a “First Four” play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
The Cavaliers (26-7) will face Hampton in their NCAA opener, allowing the Pirates to match up against their in-state rivals from the ACC. Hampton (21-10) won the MEAC title for a second straight season.
Southern California (21-12), the eighth seed in the East, plays Providence (23-10) in its first NCAA game. In the Midwest 8-9 game, Texas Tech (19-12) takes on Butler (21-10).
Williams said Saturday that he hoped Virginia would be given a No. 1 seed, saying the Cavs were “one of the top four teams in college basketball.”
The NCAA selection committee agreed, and the Cavs will make a return NCAA visit to Raleigh – they also opened NCAA play two years ago at PNC Arena.
The Cavs were beaten 61-57 by the Tar Heels in the ACC final Saturday at the Verizon Center, but have to like their NCAA chances. Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team was beat up at times during the season because of a demanding schedule but now has a “layer of toughness” to go with the experience of such seniors as Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC player of the year.
“We’re resilient,” Bennett said.
As for the Tar Heels’ potential opponents, Florida Golf Coast won the Atlantic Sun tournament with an 80-78 overtime win over Stetson. The Eagles are coached by Joe Dooley, once the head coach for four seasons at East Carolina, and has Abatemarco – one of Valvano’s closest confidantes at N.C. State – on his staff.
But Fairleigh Dickinson (18-14) also captured its conference championship, beating Wagner 87-79 for the Northeast Conference title, riding a 27-point game from Earl Potts Jr., a 6-6 sophomore who was named the tournament MVP.
Junior point guard Lewis transferred from N.C. State after his sophomore season, searching for a landing spot that might give him more playing time. After sitting out the 2014-2015 season at Butler, the 5-11 junior from Statesville averaged 6.2 points and three assists this season for the Bulldogs, who were beaten 74-60 by Providence in the opening round of the Big East Tournament.
While each of the teams at PNC Arena receive a generous ticket allotment, there should be a lot of light blue in the stands. UNC fans have sensed – now correctly – the Tar Heels could end up in Raleigh, where UNC topped N.C. State 80-68 on Feb. 24.
Williams noted Saturday that the 2005 and 2009 UNC teams that won NCAA titles also were No. 1 seeds.
“There’s no question it makes you feel good about what you’ve accomplished,” he said.
But it’s the NCAA Tournament. Anything can and will happen in March, when new heroes are made.
At PNC Arena two years ago, Mercer was a huge underdog against Duke in the Bears’ first game. And won. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was so impressed he went into the Mercer locker room after the game to congratulate the winners.
Could there be another Mercer this week, upstaging the two big favorites? Hampton would like to think so. So would some of the others.
If you go
When: Thursday and Saturday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
Ticket information: http://bit.ly/1RIyezO
No. 8 Texas Tech vs. No. No. 9 Butler, 12:40 p.m., TruTV
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Hampton, 3:10 p.m., TruTV
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson/Florida Gulf Coast, 7:20 p.m., TBS
No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 Providence, 9:50 p.m., TBS