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UNC faces daunting, but familiar, path through NCAA tournament South Region

UNC fans cheer team as it departs Peabody Hotel

Hundreds of Tar Heels fans cheer the UNC basketball team as they leave the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis to head to the arena for their game against Butler in the NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal at FedExForum in Memphis, TN Friday, Ma
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Hundreds of Tar Heels fans cheer the UNC basketball team as they leave the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis to head to the arena for their game against Butler in the NCAA Tournament South Regional semifinal at FedExForum in Memphis, TN Friday, Ma

Roy Williams sounded a bit uncertain on Thursday about how often he'd experienced this kind of thing, an NCAA tournament regional with the top four seeds all present.

“I've been in to regionals before, I think, where we'd have 1, 2, 3, and 4,” Williams said.

Indeed he had. This is the fifth time it has happened in Williams' 29 years as a head coach. He experienced it twice at Kansas, in 1991 and 2001. And now this is the third time during his tenure at UNC that the Tar Heels are in a regional that includes the top four seeds.

The South Region is the only one, in this NCAA tournament, in which the top four seeds all advanced to the Sweet 16. There's No. 1 UNC. And No. 2 Kentucky. And No. 3 UCLA. And No. 4 Butler, which plays against the Tar Heels on Friday night at FedEx Forum.

The mythology of the region has taken hold. It has been called the region of doom. A less dramatic rendition might be: this is a really good region. That might've been too boring of a description for Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels' junior forward.

“It’s crazy,” he said on Thursday inside the UNC locker room. “These teams should be in the Final Four. You’ve got Butler, really good team, always in the Final Four. They’re just difficult.

“And us, Kentucky, UCLA, four great programs. Just to have it in the Sweet 16 in this atmosphere, it’s ridiculous. It’s going to be fun.”

University of North Carolina basketball coach tells reporters that the loss in last year's championship game has served as motivation for this year's Tar Heels heading into the NCAA Tournament.

A region like this doesn't come together too often. In the past 10 tournaments, including this one, there have been 40 regionals. The top four seeds have advanced to a regional only six times. The other five, in addition to the one here in Memphis, are: the 2016 West, 2013 East, 2009 East, 2009 South and 2008 East.

Strangely, of the six times this has happened in the past 10 years, UNC has been involved in three of them. The Tar Heels advanced through the 2008 East Region, and through the 2009 South. And now they'll attempt to do the same here.

“With the names that are here with North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, the number of championships, the number of wins, does make it a little unusual,” Williams said. “But I happen to think right now Butler is better than any of them and that's the team we're getting ready to play.

“But it's pretty impressive.”

VIDEO: North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks talks about team chemistry and the Tar Heels' upcoming game against Butler during a media availability at FedExForum in Memphis, TN Thursday, March 23, 2017.

Just how good is the South Region? It's good, but not historically so.

Based on the average overall kenpom.com ranking of each team here, the South Region is the 13th-strongest of the 40 regions in the past 10 years. That puts it in the top third of regions during the past decade, but there have been a dozen stronger regions, according to kenpom data.

Among those dozen stronger regions, two of them are the ones that UNC advanced through in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, the Tar Heels advanced through an East Region that included Washington State (No. 10, according to kenpom), Louisville (No. 8) and Tennessee (14). UNC was No. 1 that year.

University of North Carolina basketball players Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson talk with reporters about facing Butler in the NCAA Sweet 16, as well as the status of Berry's injured ankle.

The average kenpom team ranking in the 2008 East: 8.25. Only the 2009 West (Connecticut, Purdue, Missouri and Memphis) and the 2009 South (UNC, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Oklahoma) were better, according to the average ranking of teams there.

Among the teams in this region of doom here in Memphis, UNC is No. 4 nationally, according to kenpom, while Kentucky is No. 5. UCLA (No. 14) and Butler (24) rank a little lower, bringing down the overall average of the region.

Not that such a thing diminishes the familiar storyline of this region's difficulty. It is a formidable region, indeed, and it is a little crazy, to use Pinson's word, that UNC, Kentucky and UCLA – three of the best programs in the history of the sport – are all here.

The Tar Heels, though, have been here before. They've played in more difficult regions, twice under Williams, and advanced to the Final Four out of both.

UNC plays Butler Friday night in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. UNC and Butler's all-time record is tied at 2-2.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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