Tar Heels ready for difficult path to Minneapolis

North Carolina has veterans with NCAA Tournament experience to guide UNC through the Midwest Region

Cameron Johnson and the Tar Heels earned the top seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and will start play Friday in Columbus, Ohio. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina basketball team worked hard to earn one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

But the accomplishment didn’t come without complication.

For the Tar Heels, the price of joining ACC rivals Duke and Virginia on the top line of an NCAA regional was by far the most difficult draw in the bracket. Barring upsets, their path through the Midwest Region to the Final Four in Minneapolis could include games against Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington, Kansas in Kansas City and fellow blueblood Kentucky.

It’s a challenge coach Roy Williams said he welcomes, even though many around the country are doubting his team’s chances for making a deep tournament run.

“We have to respect everyone and fear no one,” Williams said. “We have to be ready to play the first day. If you play your tail off the first day, perhaps they’ll let you stay around and play somebody else.”

That first day will be Friday in Columbus, Ohio, when UNC takes on 16th-seeded Iona (17-15) at approximately 9:30 p.m.

It’s a game the Tar Heels figure to win, considering that their coach has never lost a first-round NCAA matchup — he is 28-0 overall, 14-0 at UNC. They’re also as hot as anyone in the country, with their only setback in the past nine games coming by a single point at last week’s ACC Tournament to top overall seed Duke.

But as well as UNC has been playing, Williams said his team is going to have to be “a heck of a lot better” to stand a legitimate chance at earning the record 21st Final Four appearance in school history.

“The great teams we’ve had that have won the national championship or made a big, big run to get into the Final Four, those practices in the NCAA Tournament were our best practices of the year,” Williams said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

The Tar Heels have already made great strides since a shaky start to the season, in which they looked anything but the part of an eventual No. 1 seed — especially in lopsided losses to Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Louisville at home.

The 83-62 thrashing at the hands of the Cardinals was UNC’s worst ever under Williams at Smith Center.

“Two things that jump out at me when I look at the losses, particularly at Michigan and Louisville at home, (is that) I didn’t think we were ready to play,” Williams said. “I think we just waltzed out there and thought it was going to be easier than it was really going to be, and then both teams hit us right in the mouth and we went back in reverse.

“We gave in. I think both games we were embarrassed with our effort, intensity, brain and how involved we were.”

The Tar Heels have gone 15-2 since then, with their only losses coming to fellow No. 1 seeds UVa and Duke.

If history is any indication, they might actually benefit from the most recent of those setbacks since, as Williams pointed out in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s game against the Blue Devils, all three of UNC’s most recent national championships were won after similar ACC semifinal defeats.

Instead of playing another physically and mentally taxing game in Saturday’s final against Florida State, the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill for an extra day of rest before beginning their NCAA Tournament preparations.

“We have a whole week, so we’ll work on things, even if it’s just watching film and seeing what we aren’t supposed to be doing,” senior guard Kenny Williams said after the Duke game. “We’ll work on things, we’ll rest a little and get our bodies back. Then we’ll start focusing on (Iona).”

While everyone else might be filling out brackets and projecting who the Tar Heels might eventually meet as the tournament plays out, Williams’ senior teammate Luke Maye said he and the rest of the Tar Heels don’t have that luxury.

The veteran duo knows that all too well, having been members of a team that won the national championship in 2017 and another that was bounced by Texas A&M in the second round a year ago.

“You can’t look forward. You can’t look at your bracket and what else is going on,” Maye said. “It’s definitely tough because everyone watches March Madness and it’s one of the greatest times of the year. (But) you’ve got to take it one game at a time, listen to what coach preaches every day at practice and try to bring it every single game.”