Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels enter NCAA tournament expecting, not hoping

Brice Johnson, in his entire basketball career, from AAU and high school to four years at North Carolina, had never cut down a net. Not once.

Some of his teammates certainly have, but Johnson made it nearly to the end of his four years with the Tar Heels before he ascended a platform, was handed a pair of safety scissors and snipped a piece of the net as he did late Saturday night in Washington after winning the ACC championship.

That’s an experience that cannot be simulated. The Tar Heels head into the NCAA tournament having finally won something tangible. They go into it on a winning streak. They have beaten, over the past month, teams seeded first, third, fourth, sixth and 10th in the NCAA field. They have won going up and down the court and won grinding it out with Virginia.

It is clear now, in hindsight, that North Carolina turned a corner in that regular-season-ending win at Duke – if not earlier, given the difficulty of winning at Virginia – erasing the specter of not only the loss in Chapel Hill this season but the overtime loss in Durham last season.

The Tar Heels have won five straight. Now they’re a six-game winning streak away from a national title. They have earned a No. 1 seed, just like the Tar Heels’ two national champions under Roy Williams.

But unlike the previous three seasons, they go into the tournament already having won something. There are no amends to be made, no underdog card to be played, only the earned confidence of having won one tournament as they prepare for another.

“In the past, we’ve wanted to make a run,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “Now we know we’re capable of making a run. That’s the difference.”

It has been a three-year sojourn through the NCAA tournament wilderness for North Carolina since 2012, when a team built to win a national title stumbled in the regional final against Kansas thanks to injuries to Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Dexter Strickland. That left point-guard duties in the hands of overwhelmed freshman Stilman White, since referred to by Williams as “Poor Stilman” since his return to the program after a Mormon mission.

Before this week, White was not merely the only player on the current team to have won a regular-season ACC title but the only player to play an NCAA tournament game within these borders.

In Paige and Johnson’s first three seasons at North Carolina, the Tar Heels were shipped to Kansas City and San Antonio and Jacksonville, Fla., getting bumped out of Raleigh in 2014 by Virginia. Unlike Duke, which has lately fared better when sent elsewhere – first-round losses in Greensboro (2012) and Raleigh (2014) – North Carolina is 33-1 in the NCAA tournament in North Carolina, that lone loss coming to Penn on Black Sunday in 1979 at Reynolds Coliseum.

This team, unlike its predecessors, will begin in Raleigh. The 2005 title run began in Charlotte. The 2009 title run began in Greensboro. This team has similar aspirations, has earned similar geography.

It has also cut down nets for the first time, a March experience that could change everything in April.

“There won’t be any tiptoeing into the tournament,” Paige said. “We’re going to be expected to make a run. We expect ourselves to make a run. It’s one of our goals we’ve had all year. We know what we’re capable of doing now.”

After winning the ACC tournament, there are no questions about it, least of all among the Tar Heels themselves. For the first time since 2012, they go into the tournament knowing, not hoping; expecting, not wondering.

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

5 random thoughts on the bracket

1. I like double-digit seeds from smaller conferences that have played (and preferably beaten) multiple power-conference teams. There’s a talent gap there that’s hard to surmount at first asking in the NCAA tournament. That bodes well for Chattanooga (vs. Indiana) and Hawaii (vs. California). They won’t be awed.

2. Wichita State, Arkansas-Little Rock and Stephen F. Austin are all far more efficient teams than their seedings would indicate. Unfortunately, for UALR and SFA, they drew veteran teams unlikely to be rattled. Wichita State is in better shape against Vanderbilt and Arizona.

3. Other double-digit seeds with relatively favorable matchups: Buffalo (vs. Miami), Northern Iowa (vs. Texas), Temple (vs. Iowa), Syracuse (vs. Dayton).

4. Funny things seem to happen in Anaheim, Calif. Wisconsin upset No. 1 seed Arizona in 2014, Kansas upset No. 1 seed Arizona in 2003. Connecticut beat two West Coast teams there (San Diego State and Arizona) on its way to the 2011 title. That team had Kemba Walker. Oklahoma has Buddy Hield. Either way, Oregon should be nervous.

5. Give me Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Michigan State in Houston. The Tar Heels’ play in Washington has convinced me they are the team we thought they were – and that’s a team good enough to bring a second straight title to the Triangle.

Luke DeCock

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