Mar. 23, 2013 @ 10:47 PM

North Carolina is used to playing against top teams in hostile environments. It just hasn’t been very successful at it.

The Tar Heels need to reverse that trend today if they want their season to continue.

UNC has a showdown with No. 1 Kansas in an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 game in Kansas City (5:15 p.m., WRAL).

The Tar Heels (25-10), the No. 8 seed, are 0-6 against AP Top 10 teams, with losses to Miami, Duke and Indiana. In tough road games against Miami, Indiana and N.C. State, UNC faced 25-point deficits.

Now it will play the Jayhawks (30-5) in the Sprint Center, just 45 miles from Kansas University, where the Jayhawks are 7-0 this season (including a run to the Big 12 tournament title).

Kansas has an edge in experience, with three fifth-year seniors in the starting lineup. It has a dominant post player in seven-footer Jeff Withey and a big power forward in 6-8 Kevin Young, which should cause problems for UNC’s small lineup. It has the No. 1 field-goal percentage defense in the country.

Still, UNC remains confident. When asked Saturday what the Tar Heels need to do to win, junior forward Reggie Bullock responded: “I would say, what do they need to beat us, too? It’s not just about us being able to match up and beat them. They have to beat us, too.”

A big reason for the Tar Heels’ faith is their recent play. UNC has won 9 of 11, including Friday’s 78-71 win over No. 9 Villanova in the tournament opener.

“We’ve just learned from those,” freshman Marcus Paige said. “In the big games recently we’ve been playing well. Those games in the beginning of the year we struggled mightily, but now I think we’re ready for an environment like this. In spurts we’re playing as well as we’ve ever played, so we’re excited and we’re ready to go.”

Now UNC needs to play a complete game. The Tar Heels raced out to a 20-point lead after 13 minutes against Villanova, then made just two field goals over the next 13 minutes as the Wildcats came all the way back.

UNC coach Roy Williams, who recorded his 700th career win Friday, said that his team “shied away from the challenge” when the Wildcats played tougher basketball, and it couldn’t rely on fast breaks to get easy baskets like past teams had done.

The Tar Heels eventually made their last seven shots to pull away, including four straight 3-pointers. Kansas also struggled from outside Friday against No. 16 Western Kentucky before advancing 64-57, becoming the first NCAA Tournament team in 12 years to win without making a 3-pointer.

But unlike the Tar Heels — who need accurate outside shooting from their perimeter-oriented lineup to overcome their disadvantages in rebounding and points in the paint — Kansas can score in the post.

Led by Withey, who’s third in the country in blocks, and long, athletic guards like Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, the Jayhawks allowing opponents to shoot an NCAA-low 35.9 percent from the field. But UNC has also had experience playing against Top 20 defenses like Virginia and Maryland, and is encouraged with the results.

“We’ve been playing unselfish lately and that’s been helping,” Paige said. “Against Virginia, we put up 90 (points). We had some of our better offensive games against Maryland. It’s not surprising to us to play against a team that has a good defensive field goal percentage. We just have to do what we do best — share the ball and take good shots.”

Kansas ended UNC’s season in the Elite 8 last year, scoring the final 12 points in an 80-67 win in front of another pro-Jayhawks crowd in St. Louis.

UNC has changed drastically since then — guards Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald were recovering from torn ACLs, P.J. Hairston was in a shooting slump, James Michael McAdoo was backing up two first-round NBA picks and Paige was in high school.

Now Paige runs the offense, Hairston is the team’s leading scorer, Strickland and McDonald are part of what’s become a six-man rotation, and McAdoo is the only true post player.

The Tar Heels have adjusted to their new roles, and even have a bit of history on their side — UNC has beaten the No. 1 seed in its region in its two previous appearances as a No. 8 seed. But going 3 for 3 would require the Tar Heels to do something they haven’t done all season — beat a quality team, and do it away from home.

“We feel very comfortable, very confident,” Williams said. “Yet we know we’ve got a tremendous challenge in front of us.”

No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Region: South
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Records: UNC 25-10, Kansas 30-5

“There’s been three, four, five, maybe more times that I’ve changed a lineup in one spot, but not necessarily a style of play. This was the first time that I’ve done that. It was scary.” UNC coach Roy Williams.
“It’s going to be really important to rebound and play physical. We’ll have the size advantage with (6-8) Kevin Young posting up their guards. I like our matchup.” Kansas center Jeff Withey.

UNC —  P.J. Hairston, G, So. — The 6-5½ Hairston had a game-high 23 points and a team-high five rebounds in the 78-71 win over No. 9 Villanova Friday. Hairston was 5 of 8 from behind the arc and has scored 20 points in half of his 12 starts.
Kansas — Withey, C, Sr. — The 7-foot fifth-year player will be a problem for the small UNC lineup. He’s a big reason why Kansas leads the country in field-goal percentage defense and is second in blocked shots.

UNC — 23 — UNC has reached the Sweet 16 in 23 of its last 29 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Kansas — 30 — Kansas has become the first school in NCAA history with four straight 30-win seasons.

Kansas Jayhawks Roster

Coach: Bill Self

  Pos Ht Wt Yr Hometown
1 Naadir Tharpe G 5-11 170 So Worcester, Mass.
2 Rio Adams G 6-3 190 Fr Seattle
3 Andrew White III G 6-6 210 Fr Richmond, Va.
4 Justin Wesley F 6-9 220 Jr Fort Worth Texas  
5 Jeff Withey C 7-0 235 Sr San Diego Diego
10 Evan Manning G 6-3 170 Fr Lawrence, Kan.
11 Tyler Self G 6-2 165 Fr Lawrence, Kan.
15 Elijah Johnson G 6-4 195 Sr Las Vegas Vegas
20 Niko Roberts G 5-11 175 Jr Huntington, N.Y.
21 Christian Garrett G 6-3 185 So Los Angeles Angeles
23 Ben McLemore G 6-5 195 Fr St. Louis Louis
24 Travis Releford G 6-6 210 Sr Kansas City Mo.
31 Jamari Traylor F 6-8 220 Fr Chicago
34 Perry Ellis F 6-8 225 Fr Wichita, Kan.
40 Kevin Young F 6-8 190 Sr Perris, Calif.


North Carolina Tar Heels Roster

Coach: Roy Williams

  Pos Ht Wt Yr Hometown
0 Joel James F 6-10 260 Fr West Palm Beach Fla.    
1 Dexter Strickland G 6-3 180 Sr Rahway, N.J.
2 Leslie McDonald G 6-5 215 Jr Memphis, Tenn.
3 Wade Moody G 6-0 175 Jr Mount Airy    
4 Luke Davis G 6-0 172 So Raleigh,  
5 Marcus Paige G 6-0½ 157 Fr Marion, Iowa
11 Brice Johnson F 6-9 187 Fr Orangeburg, S.C.
14 Desmond Hubert F 6-9½ 220 So Cream Ridge N.J.  
15 P.J. Hairston G 6-5½ 220 So Greensboro  
21 Jackson Simmons F 6-7 220 So Webster  
22 Frank Tanner F 6-4 210 Sr Charlotte  
25 J.P. Tokoto F 6-5 185 Fr Menomonee Falls Wisc.  
30 James Manor F 6-6 210 Jr Carrboro  
34 Denzel Robinson F 6-4 215 Jr Chapel Hill  
35 Reggie Bullock G 6-7 205 Jr Kinston  
43 James Michael McAdoo F 6-9 230 So Norfolk, Va.