NCAA Tourtnament: Tar Heels taking LIU seriously
CHARLOTTE — The North Carolina players huddled around the small television in the cramped locker room and screamed in unison: “Oh!”
Morehead State’s upset of Louisville on a clutch shot Thursday provided not only some entertainment on a full day of practices and media obligations for the Tar Heels, but a warning, too.
“I think that shows you,” forward John Henson said, “one bad game can send you home.”
After sitting out last year’s NCAA tournament, the 2009 champions are eager to stick around. And despite some gaudy numbers and streaks by 15th-seeded Long Island University, the trends point toward the second-seeded Tar Heels’ as a big favorite headed toward Friday’s second-round game in the East Regional.
“I don’t think it’s a very good matchup,” Blackbirds coach Jim Ferry said.
Ferry was referencing his high-scoring, fast-paced team playing against another. But he could have been talking about a number of other elements that leave LIU (27-5) facing an uphill climb.
It’s the fourth straight time the Tar Heels (26-7) have opened NCAA tournament play in their home state, where they’ve won 23 consecutive NCAA games. Time Warner Cable Arena was a sea of baby blue with chants of “Tar Heels!” on Thursday — for North Carolina’s open practice.
But after watching his team get into the habit falling way behind at last weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Williams was a bit nervous about the Northeast Conference champions.
“They are really good. I really believe that. It’s not coach talk,” Williams said. “Lou Holtz is one of my buddies, but this not Lou Holtz up here talking.”
In its first NCAA trip since 1997, LIU carries the nation’s longest active winning streak (13 games) and has the most road wins of any team in the country (13).
But perhaps because their only road game against a school from a major conference was a loss — at Northwestern in December — the Blackbirds were given a low seed and a ticket to Charlotte.
“We like playing on the road,” said guard Kyle Johnson, one of four Canadians on LIU’s roster. “We like taking the crowd out of the game. It gives us excitement and we look forward to stuff like that.”
Behind forward Julian Boyd, who missed all of last season with a heart condition that still is a cause for some concern, LIU is the nation’s fourth-highest scoring team at 82.6 points a game. They take more than 30 free throws a contest, tops in the nation, and have scored at least 80 points 24 times.
Trouble is, high-scoring games are North Carolina’s domain, too. The Tar Heels average 76.7 points.
“We’re very good at flying up and down the court. They invented it, it seems like,” Ferry said. “It’s the way they play. And we have to do it in Charlotte. It’s going to be very difficult.”
The Tar Heels, who fell in the NIT final a year ago to end a 17-loss season, are looking to bounce back from Sunday’s 75-58 loss to Duke in the ACC title game. North Carolina couldn’t recover from a big early deficit as it did against Clemson and Miami the previous two days.
And while Harrison Barnes starred in the ACC tournament, including a 40-point outing against Clemson, the Tar Heels need better play out of freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.
“I didn’t help my team the way I know I can,” said Marshall, who has shot 7-for-30 in the past three games. “For us to be successful I have to be play to a high standard. When I go out there and perform the way I did last weekend, I feel like it’s my job and my duty to make it up to them.”
But this is all new to Marshall and most of his teammates. Only Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts — who played small roles on the 2009 title team — have played in the NCAA tournament.
Playing a virtual home game against a school 0-3 all-time in the NCAA tournament figures to be a good warmup.
Or is it?
“I do think we have a shot,” Ferry insisted. “A 15 (seed) has beaten a 2 before. We’re going to have to play extremely well.”
Kind of like Morehead State. Asked about his players’ reaction to that upset, Williams leaned over to the moderator on the podium for confirmation that Louisville had been ousted.
“We do talk about that,” Williams said. “There’s always going to be upsets the first week. You just have to hope it’s not you.”
The Associated Press