'Fearing No One'

DAYTON, Ohio -- What do you want for nothing? Another NCAA championship? North Carolina's tournament pathway continues to open up much as it did for the 2000 Tar Heels, which after knocking off top-ranked Stanford, then rolled through Tennessee and Tulsa en route to the Final Four.

It's looking better and better for No. 10 UNC (23-7), but Roy Williams can't afford to look ahead. Certainly his assistant coaches and players can't either.

However, it's easy for everyone else to see that if Carolina can take care of 11-seed George Mason on Sunday, and then seven-seed Wichita State next Friday at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.; a trip to Indianapolis would be just one huge victory away on Sunday – likely versus the region's top-seeded Connecticut.

Just one game away from the Final Four.

Just one game.

Williams made a point Saturday to note he has never, "never," challenged the decisions of the NCAA Selection Committee. Oh, he continues his ongoing "Coke Cup Feud," but he never took the bait to complain about his team's three-seed in Dayton.

"You've never heard me criticize the tournament committee," Williams said. "Never."

Now it appears he has his Tar Heels in optimum position to keep proving preseason prognosticators wrong.

Though Murray State coach Mick Cronin didn't miss a chance – actually two chances – to extend a barb at the Racers' tournament seeding.

"We got a terrible seed," Cronin said. "There's no other way to put it. If we had could have gotten a better seed; if only we had gotten a little more respect from the committee. Not only did we have to play a three, we had to play North Carolina, who is one of the hottest teams in the country."

Keep your blinders on, and don't sleep on the Patriots of the CAA. And admit down the stretch versus Murray State you began to prepare yourself mentally for the Tar Heels' incredible 2005-06 season to come to an abrupt end.

It's going to happen. We all know UNC won't win it all. Maybe this is Duke's year or maybe it isn't. But shouldn't Tar Heel fans just be satisfied to still matter this late in March?

No. As the tournament field's collective strength diminishes exponentially with each passing weekend, Carolina's power rating increases. In a sick, perhaps twisted and unfair manner, the Tar Heels are dangerously close to becoming realistic contenders to win it all.

They know it. They won't talk about it, but David Noel did let it slip in a post-game press conference on Friday that he's thinking bracket advancement.

"We're going to ride this horse all the way to Indianapolis," he said when asked about Tyler Hansbrough's 24-point performance versus the Racers.

Noel's not looking past anyone; he's just making future plans.

After a lackluster ACC Tournament performance, UNC left fans wondering if its public destruction of Duke on Senior Night and on national television marked the peak of an already remarkable season of success. Truth is it always hurts when an NCAA Tournament loss terminates a run to the title.

Carolina fans are thrilled with the Tar Heels' accomplishments this season. Heck, they were a month ago. But whenever it happens, whether it's today, Friday or Sunday; UNC's next loss will likely leave an inimitable void in the pit of its fans' stomachs – as it has so many times this time of year.

In some ways, a Carolina tournament loss marks the beginning of spring more so than March 21. And that makes time move quickly, especially in between tournament rounds.

The NCAA Tournament's unpredictability lends to its greatness. Wasn't it less than a week prior it appeared UNC would have to weather a classic revenge match-up with sixth-seeded Michigan State before entertaining any hopes of facing second-seeded Tennessee on Friday?

Pre-tournament preconceptions are rarely accurate; just check your current status in the company pool. The Spartans, Vols, along with the Illini have gone home, while UConn struggled past Albany. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels are hot – winners of nine of their last 10.

Apparently last Saturday's loss to Boston College is serving more of a wake-up call than a jolt to young UNC's confidence. Its quad-freshman-tandem of Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard scored the final 29 points in the Tar Heels' 69-65 win over Ohio Valley champ Murray State on Friday.

Noel said the underclassmen looked a little "scared." But he was only halfway serious when he made that comment, which bodes well for a more balanced attack on Sunday.

"We have a whole season under our belt, a whole year of practice under Coach Williams," Frasor said. "I wouldn't even call us freshman anymore."

The pieces may just be in place now for a title run; not just next year.

"We go into every game respecting everyone but fearing no one," Reyshawn Terry said.

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