The Stage Is Set

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. --- East top-seed North Carolina is in the hunt for its second NCAA title in three years. The Tar Heels believe youth and inexperience can no longer be used as excuses for mental lapses in games, as they get ready for first-round opponent Eastern Kentucky on Thursday.

"This is what you live for," freshman Wayne Ellington said.

The game will start at approximately 9:50 p.m. and will be televised by CBS.

It's one-and-done time, but the underclassmen believe they became tournament tested in winning the ACC Tournament last weekend in Tampa.

"There are no ‘mulligans,'" Roy Williams said.

The juniors and seniors have tasted the sweetest of title nectar, yet were only personnel afterthoughts in the 2005 championship season. The sophomores know the bitterness of an early surprise exit, and everyone has shared their experiences with the freshmen that Carolina relies so heavily on.

"They've told us to be focused and be ready to compete, and we'll be just fine," Ellington said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that in the ACC Tournament and we were successful. I think we're going to bring it here and do the same thing. As long as we play Carolina basketball, we'll be all right."

Reyshawn Terry says experience is the best teacher, and of late, he's also been leading by example. Terry's clutch baskets in the ACC semis and finals brought the best out of the senior at just the right time, and he's not ready to end his college career yet.

"We can tell (the freshmen) this is what it takes for us to move on in the NCAA Tournament," Terry said. "But, it's up to them; we can only say so much to them."

For Williams, trying to gauge his team's mindset entering a tournament is difficult at best. There is not a coach with a formula for perfect preparation, or his teams would win the title every year. However, Williams says he believes the Tar Heels will start with the right frame of mind.

"You never know until the game starts," Williams said. "It's hard to win a conference tournament on Sunday and all of the sudden you're playing on Thursday and what you did Sunday means nothing.

"I feel good about them," he said. "They're a wonderful group of kids to work with."

  • With the consensus belief that the Tar Heels' bracket draw is as tough as it gets, Tyler Hansbrough will need to be at his best if they're to break out of the East. His 13 rebounds in Saturday's win over Boston College, and his 11-for-11 performance at the free throw line on Sunday versus NC State were hardly inconsequential contributions; but Hansbrough's back-to-the-basket game was clearly strained.

    "It makes it pretty hard to shoot my jump hook when I turn to my side and not being able to see the goal," Hansbrough said. "Shooting straight on, it didn't really bother me there. But it was frustrating. Mentally, I didn't think I had a problem with it. But once you have a bad game in that mask, I think it could stay with you in your mind."

    So to help improve his peripheral vision and improve his breathing, Hansbrough now has a smaller, slimmer mask with larger eyeholes.

    "We're going to get him to try it on when he's out there shooting around," Williams said. "The other mask, he got more used to it, but I don't think any of us would ever even come close to saying that he liked it."

    Game situations may dictate whether Hansbrough will be required to keep the mask on. If the Tar Heels advance and face tougher opponents, and he's not comfortable, the mask could get tossed by the wayside.

    "I trust the young man immensely," Williams said of Hansbrough. "If he tells me, ‘Coach I really, really don't want to do this,' and the doctors say it's very minimal danger, then I'm not going to make him do it."

  • Eastern Kentucky (21-11) is expected to try and slow the pace of the game to minimize UNC possessions. Williams said he's most concerned about the Colonels' 1-3-1 zone defense, which the Tar Heels have yet to face this season.

    "[UNC] is a great transition team," EKU coach Jeff Neubauer said. "They obviously play faster than anybody else in the country and we can't allow the game to get into a high-paced game. We are naturally a patient team… The problem is getting North Carolina to cooperate with that idea."

    Williams said he does not expect EKU's players to be in awe of the tournament atmosphere, since many of them were with the Colonels two years ago when they qualified.

    "Some 16 seeds are standing around and looking around and all of the sudden they are down 22," he said. "I don't think that is going to happen here. And they can really shoot the basketball."

  • UNC (28-6) is 12-5 this season versus the NCAA field – losing only to Gonzaga, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech twice. Carolina posted non-conference wins over participants Winthrop, Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

  • The Colonels and Tar Heels have met just once before, with Eastern Kentucky picking up an 85-62 win in over Carolina on Dec. 20, 1950, in Pikeville, Ky.

  • This will be UNC's third trip to Winston-Salem in the NCAA Tournament. Carolina was 2-0 in 1993 with wins over East Carolina and Rhode Island, and 2-0 in 1997 against Fairfield and Colorado. Both times the Tar Heels went on to advance to the Final Four.

  • UNC is 19-1 in NCAA play within the borders of its home state. The only loss was to Pennsylvania in Raleigh on March 11, 1979 (Black Sunday).

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