Former Kansas coach Roy Williams has guided the storied Carolina program back to the NCAAs after a years hiatus. North Carolina got past Air Force (and its home court advantage) 63-52 with an 11-0 run in the final 13 minutes to erase a 44-38 Falcon lead.
Led by a trio of sophomores, the team drips with youthful talent but lacks depth. The Heels front court is led by sophomore G Rashad McCants (20.1 ppg) and sophomore G Raymond Felton (11.5 ppg, 7.2 assists per game). But the key will be to frustrate sophomore C Sean May (15.4 ppg, 10 rebounds per game). Look for head coach Rick Barnes to tag-team May with his superior front court depth, to do whatever it takes to deny him the ball and/or get him in foul trouble. Texas has the bench to come at May in waves.
Another key (an intangible, actually) for Texas is not to be as spooked by the North Carolina tradition as they seem to be when they play Duke. Memo to Texas: Michael Jordan is not suiting up for this one. Texas experienced seniors need to play like theyre the ones who have just been to the Final Four. Hopefully, junior C Jason Klotz and freshman F P.J. Tucker have shaken off their opening round jitters.
Speaking of Tucker, the Raleigh product has a chance to show both North Carolina and Duke what they missed by not even hinting at offering a scholarship to a gamer from their own backyard. The only Longhorn averaging a double-double this season, Tucker said his home state backed off because his grades slipped halfway through high school. I aint buying it. Theres no way any kid gets a scholarship to Texas if the possibility exists that he might be an academic casualty. The blue-blooded Carolina schools were looking more at the forwards 6-5 frame than his report card. (And as Tucker is frequent to remind doubters: Charles Barkley stood all of 6-5.)
Saturdays opponent recalls sports writer John Feinsteins (author of "Season On The Brink") depiction of the Rick BarnesNorth Carolina rivalry in his book, "A March Toward Madness." The subject chronicled a year in the life of the Atlantic Coast Conference, including Barnes first year at Clemson.
The section on Barnes highlighted his unflinching feud with legendary Tar Heel coach Dean Smith. For starters, league coaches tended to stand reverently (practically observing a moment of reverent silence) any time Smith entered the room. Barnes, however, refused to genuflect. Smith eventually considered Barnes a brash upstart. Barnes approach, in essence, was bring it on.
Barnes told me earlier this season that one prominent North Carolina newspaper had labeled his first Clemson team "the worst in the history of the ACC." But folks took notice when Barnes squad, picked last in the ACC, strolled into Cameron Indoor Arena and upset Duke for the first time since God was a boy. His teams early success put Clemson in the thick of the conference race.
During his first head-to-head meeting with Smith in Chapel Hill, Barnes was convinced the referees were not giving his scrappy but unheralded squad a chance to compete. At one point, Barnes demanded a mid-court coaches meeting and shouted, "You tell Smith to get his ass over here!" (In Chapel Hill, where I grew up, that would be like an altar boy telling the Pope to "get his ass over here.")
The Barnes-Smith feud became so heated that, the week before the conference tournament, the ACC Commissioner summoned both Barnes and Smith to his office to try to smooth things out. Thing is, both Barnes and Smith thought the other had been called to issue an apology. When it became apparent that no apology would be forthcoming, both Barnes and Smith left the session determined to take the other one out on the court. That year, the Tar Heels would upend the Tigers in tournament play but Barnes had served notice. His Tigers program would eventually reach the Elite Eight of college hoops in a game ironically played in San Antonio, just 78 miles south of what would soon become Barnes home.
Although enmity appears to remain toward the Texas head man from Tar Heel fans, UNC's current coach said Thursday after his team's opening round win that he has a "good relationship" with Barnes. "I think we enjoy competing against one another," Williams added. "We have a great history playing each other... His kids only think about one thing, and thats winning. I respect that a lot."
When Williams called Lawrence rather than Chapel Hill home, his Jayhawks squared off against Barnes' Horns five times (all regular season match-ups), with Kansas winning four of the five. The last two meetings were barn burners, the '02 version a 110-103 OT game in Austin and the '03 version a 90-87 instant classic at KU, both Jayhawk victories.
UT's last meeting with UNC came back in '95 when the Tom Penders-led Horns upset the No. 11 Heels in Austin 74-72. This time, Texas brings a No. 11 ranking into the contest while No. 18 North Carolina comes in as the slight underdog. A win over the Tar Heels would give Texas its third straight Sweet Sixteen appearance.
[Editor's note: Clendon Ross contributed to this report.]