Luke DeCock

Memphis has a comfortable feel for the Tar Heels, so far at least – DeCock

UNC has fun in practice before NCAA Regional

VIDEO: The North Carolina Tar Heels had fun while participating in an open practice at FedExForum in Memphis, TN Thursday, March 23, 2017. The Tar Heels will face Butler in the Sweet 16 Friday.
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VIDEO: The North Carolina Tar Heels had fun while participating in an open practice at FedExForum in Memphis, TN Thursday, March 23, 2017. The Tar Heels will face Butler in the Sweet 16 Friday.

There’s a sense of comfort for North Carolina in Memphis. The Tar Heels have done this before. Their path to the national title in 2009 ran through here, and while eight years can be a long time elsewhere, it tends to move a little more slowly here.

The Peabody Hotel, where North Carolina stayed then and now, still parades its famous ducks in and out of the lobby every morning and afternoon. Across the street and down an alley, the Rendezvous still serves the same char-grilled ribs that Roy Williams fell in love on a recruiting trip many decades ago. Beale Street and the Lorraine Motel feel frozen in time – the latter actually is, as part of the National Civil Rights Museum. And the Mississippi River still offers its blessing for those willing to expectorate in it and believe it brings good luck, as Williams always does.

This is a comfortable place for North Carolina. Regardless of what happens Friday night against Butler, this is where the Tar Heels wanted to be, where they would have chosen to go had they been the No. 1 overall seed.

“I stumbled into the Rendezvous and I found the best ribs I’d found anywhere in the country, so I love the Rendezvous,” Williams said. “We’ve recruited kids here. Love the golf courses, love the people, love the music – 2009, we had a nice run that got us to a Final Four. I just like the town a great deal and the way I’m always treated.”

Williams’ situation is unlike that faced by John Calipari, whose relationship with Memphis is slightly more complicated. Friday night was his first appearance since leaving for Kentucky in 2009. He was a hero here, a giant astride the river, revered for restoring Memphis to its rightful position as a basketball power, right up to the moment he left.

Even at Thursday’s open practice, he was roundly booed, even with the building full, as always, of Kentucky fans.

“We loved our time here,” Calipari said. “And I understand some people were upset that I left,” Calipari said. “I get that, I mean, and I accept that. It doesn’t bother me.”

There’s a chance North Carolina and Kentucky could end up playing Sunday for a trip to the Final Four, pitting two coaches against each other who both love Memphis, but only one the city loves back.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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