NCAA TOURNEY: UNC to San Antonio to meet Providence

Mar. 16, 2014 @ 09:34 PM

North Carolina hasn’t had much success in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed or in San Antonio. The Tar Heels will have a chance to change both those trends this year.

UNC was awarded the No. 6 seed in the East Region and will open tournament play Friday against No. 11 Providence at the AT&T Center (7:20 p.m., TNT). Next up would be No. 3 Iowa State or No. 14 N.C. Central in the round of 32 on Sunday, with the winner of that game advancing to the East Regional semifinals in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Before it can think about the Big Apple, UNC will have to play better than it has in recent games. The Tar Heels are entering the NCAA Tournament on a two-game losing streak, having given up a season-high 93 points at Duke and then falling to Pittsburgh in their ACC Tournament opener. Those losses followed two close wins against mediocre opponents Notre Dame and Virginia Tech.

“We’ve got to get back to where we run the basketball, we’ve got to get back to rebounding, and we have to have a tougher mindset,” UNC coach Roy Williams said Sunday.

The Tar Heels didn’t record a fast-break point and were outscored on second-chance points 21-6 against Pittsburgh, which got 21 rebounds from center Talib Zanna alone. UNC posted only 20 total rebounds against Duke.

The Tar Heels are 2-2 in two prior appearances as a sixth seed — losing to the No. 3 seed in the second round in both 2004 and 1996. UNC also lost both its previous NCAA games in the Alamo City, falling in the Final Four to Kansas in 2008 and to Utah in 1998 — though both those games were in the more spacious Alamodome.

After high-profile non-conference wins against top 11 teams Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky — along with deflating losses to Belmont and UAB — the Tar Heel started 1-4 in the ACC, putting their NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy. UNC then won 12 straight conference games to land safely in the field for the 10th time in 11 seasons under Williams, despite their recent slide.

“The NCAA Tournament is always an exciting time and I am so pleased for our kids,” Williams said. “They have overcome a lot and put themselves in a position to play in the Tournament.

“We have had some outstanding wins this year, both in and out of league play, over teams that received some very high seeds in the field, so we know we are capable. But we must play better than we have over the last two weeks if we want to reach our big-time dreams.”

Providence will be making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2004. The Friars earned an automatic berth by beating third-seeded Creighton in the Big East Tournament final.

Potential round of 32 opponent Iowa State is playing in its third straight NCAA Tournament after beating second-seeded Kansas, while N.C. Central is playing in its first NCAA Tournament since moving up to the Division I level.

Providence, which hasn’t played UNC since 1979, is led by senior guard Bryce Cotton, a unanimous first-team all-Big East selection who leads the nation in minutes played (40.1) and entered the week ninth in scoring (21.7).

The Tar Heels have their own all-conference point guard, Bob Cousy Award finalist Marcus Paige. Paige said he “should be good to go by Friday” after he suffered a bruised quad against Pitt, and he was happy that UNC was put into a site that starts play Friday instead of Thursday.