Heels start NCAA title defense in Charlotte

Carolina’s run to the ACC title game earned it a No. 2 seed and a home state advantage

Guard Joel Berry II and the Tar Heels begin the defense of their national title on Friday afternoon against Lipscomb. (Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports)

North Carolina may have lost to top-ranked Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game Saturday, but it still came home from Brooklyn feeling like winners.

Not only did the Tar Heels’ three-win run to the tournament final help them regain a confidence shaken by an ill-timed two-game losing streak to end the regular season, but it also put them in position to play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte.

That’s no small matter considering UNC’s postseason history in the Queen City.

The Tar Heels, seeded second in the West Region, are a perfect 6-0 in NCAA play under Williams in the arena now known as the Spectrum Center. They have yet to lose in 16 tournament games in N.C. since Williams’ arrival in 2003.

But the venue is only part of the reason Williams is so optimistic about his team’s chances, as it begins defense of its national title and a third straight Final Four appearance Friday afternoon against America Sun Conference champion Lipscomb.

“My team is getting better,” the Hall of Fame coach said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve got some bigger goals in front of us, and we’ll need to get back to work this week after giving them some rest.”

UNC’s most noticeable improvement in Brooklyn came on the defensive end of the court, an area that hasn’t always been its strong suit this season.

The Tar Heels limited all four of their ACC tournament opponents to less than 42 percent shooting from the floor, with two of them — Syracuse and Miami — finishing well below that mark.

They were especially effective at limiting the damage done inside by Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, the ACC’s Rookie and Player of the Year, thanks in part to the elevated play of their own freshman big man, Garrison Brooks. UNC was even better at defending its traditional Achilles’ heel, the 3-point shot, until running into a Virginia buzz saw in the championship game.

But as good as the Tar Heels were, senior guard Joel Berry said that they’re going to have to be even better to have any chance at making it to the final game of the next tournament.

“Like I always say, we can score the ball. We have people that can score. It’s just about can you stop other people from scoring,” Berry said. “When we’re playing defense and we’re out there just running around and being active and competing, it’s hard to stop us. That’s why each and every time whenever I get a chance, I just let them know we’ve got to get stops, we’ve got to get stops, because that’s what it’s all about.”

If any team should know what to expect now that tournament time is here, it’s UNC. Four of its five starters have national championship rings to their credit.

And now, because of their close call in Brooklyn, they also have increased motivation.

“We can’t look at it as being a disappointment of losing tonight.” senior Theo Pinson said in the aftermath of the Virginia game. “I think it will have us come back even more hungry going into the (next) tournament.”

Here is the road that faces the Tar Heels in this year’s NCAA tournament:

• First round: Lipscomb (23-9), 2:40 p.m., CBS. The Atlantic Sun tournament champion Bisons play an up-tempo style that has helped them average 82.6 points per game under fifth-year coach Casey Alexander. This is the first NCAA tournament appearance for the small private school from Nashville. This should be a good matchup for UNC, which also likes to get up and down the court, just with better players.

• Possible second-round matchup: The Tar Heels would play the winner of a first-round game between seventh-seeded Texas Tech (20-11) and No. 10 Providence (21-13). The Red Raiders have size and balance with six players averaging at least nine points and have some impressive wins to their credit — including victories against NCAA teams West Virginia, Auburn and Kentucky. The Friars feature a senior star in Kyron Cartwright and are hot, having beaten top-seed Xavier in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament before taking another No. 1 seed, Villanova, to overtime in the final.

• Possible paths beyond week one: The West Regional is in Los Angeles, where UNC would face No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Houston, No. 11 San Diego State or No. 14 Montana in the Sweet 16. Xavier is the top seed in the West, but a possible national championship game rematch with Gonzaga, the No. 4 seed, is a realistic Elite Eight possibility. No. 5 Ohio State is also a team to watch from the upper half of the regional bracket.