Tar Heels determined not to make history in NCAA opener

Despite coach Roy Williams concerns and Texas Southerns big-game experience, UNC is a heavy favorite against its 16th-seeded opponent

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Mar 16

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Someday, a No. 16 seed is eventually going to upset a No. 1 regional seed in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. It’s a possibility North Carolina’s Roy Williams said “worries the Dickens” out of every top-seeded coach the night before his team plays that first game. Williams ought to know. His teams have been a No. 1 seed 12 times at both UNC and Kansas. His trepidation over making history may be greater than usual this year because of the 16th-seeded opponent his Tar Heels will play on Friday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena — SWAC champion Texas Southern.. “It’s scary when someone wins 19 out of the last 21 (and) played 16 straight games on the road,” Williams said of the Tigers, who are led by former Indiana coach Mike Davis. “I think taking the team on the road like that helps them financially, but probably taught them some tough love kind of thing with the adversity they faced. “You look at them, they’ve got four starters averaging double figures, so they’re a balanced team. It’s the kind of team that I don’t like to play because everybody scores, not just one guy.” Texas Southern (23-11) actually has only two current team members averaging better than 10 points per game — junior guard Zach Lofton at 17.0 points per game and freshman guard Demontrae Jefferson at 14.9. A third, Derrick Griffin, left the team after 13 games to prepare for the NFL draft. But to Williams’ point, the Tigers do feature a balanced lineup with three other players averaging better than 8.5 points per game. Perhaps the biggest thing Texas Southern has going for it is that it won’t be intimidated by playing a brand name school such as UNC. That’s because it’s already played its share during that run of 16 consecutive road games to start the season. Among the teams the Tigers have already played are two No.2 seeds in this year’s NCAA tournament (Louisville and Arizona), a No. 3 seed (Baylor) and a No. 6 seed (Cincinnati). Although they didn’t come close to winning any of those marquee games, Davis said they helped give his veteran team a taste of the energy, intensity and execution needed to pull off a historic upset once tournament time rolls around. “The only way you win games and the only way you benefit from your nonconference schedule is that you have to take those games and realize how hard those games are and come back and practice that way throughout the course of your season,” Davis said. “Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament every year, so once you get to the tournament, did you work hard enough from December to March to be able to face a team like North Carolina?” Even with all that preparation, Davis’ Tigers will have their work cut out for them against the Tar Heels, who based on the strengths of the two teams present a particularly difficult matchup above and beyond the 1-16 dynamic. Consider that while UNC leads the nation in rebounding margin at plus-12.7 per game, Texas Southern is getting outrebounded this season by an average of 1.9 per game. And while the Tar Heels have been vulnerable to teams with the ability to knock down the 3-point shot, the Tigers aren’t one of those at just 29.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc as a team. At this point in the process, though, the Tar Heels are more focused on what they do and how they do it than the strengths and weaknesses of what figures to be an overmatched opponent. Regardless of how scary it might look to their coach. “It’s different when you come from conference play,” junior guard Theo Pinson said. “Everybody knows what you’re doing and once you go into tournament play, the team you’re playing most likely hasn’t played against you for a long time or whatever. They won’t be accustomed to what we do and stuff like that and we won’t be accustomed to them also. “It’s about Xs and Os at some point, but at the same time you want to continue to do what you do. And we’re really trying to, We’re just trying to focus on what we do offensively and defensively.”