Although North Carolina coach Roy Williams is feeling a little better about his team, he knows it could be in for a fight against a Gonzaga squad looking to make a name for itself.
The second-ranked Tar Heels (3-0) look to build on a strong effort as they face the Bulldogs (4-0) in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
North Carolina pounded Gardner-Webb 103-50 on Sunday, shooting 53 percent and never trailing in its home opener. Four days earlier, the Tar Heels trailed Winthrop by 12 points before rallying for a 73-66 win in the quarterfinals of the Season Tip-Off.
Williams criticized his team and questioned its toughness after the Winthrop game, but was much happier with Sunday’s effort.
“There’s not very many coaches that would say they’re very comfortable with where their team is right now, and we’re a long way off from where we can be defensively,” Williams said. “Yet I think we’re getting better. We’re better today than we were the last game. We better be.”
Carolina is 16-2 in the event formerly known as the Preseason NIT, winning the tournament in 1998 and 2002. The Tar Heels, however, could have their hands full against Gonzaga, which is 7-1 all-time against ACC teams, including six wins over ranked squads.
“I said this all this week, and it’s not just because we’re playing them, but no one can consider Gonzaga a mid-major anymore,” said Williams, who has a winning percentage of .800, second behind Few’s .824 among active coaches. “Mark has turned their program into what can be considered one of the elite programs in all of college basketball.”
The Bulldogs entered the season unranked for the first time since 2001 after losing Adam Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points per game last season and now plays for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and J.P. Batista, who averaged 19.3. Gonzaga, however, has outscored its four opponents by an average of 26.5 points.
“This will give us a good barometer of where we are on the national scene,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his team’s trip to New York. “This is a great opportunity for such a young, unproven group.”
The Bulldogs have never faced the Tar Heels and have never defeated a team ranked higher than No. 3. They made their MSG debut in 2003, losing to Saint Joseph’s.
Forward Josh Heytvelt leads the Bulldogs with 17.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and Derek Raivio is chipping in 16.5 points. Gonzaga knocked off Rice and Baylor in the opening rounds of the tournament and is coming off Sunday’s 92-48 home victory over Texas-San Antonio.
“That’s what you live for, a big game on a big stage,” Raivio said of playing at Madison Square Garden.
The Tar Heels are led by preseason All-American Tyler Hansbrough, who averages 22.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Reyshawn Terry also average in double figures.
Wright had a team-high 21 points against Gardner-Webb, while fellow freshman Ellington chipped in 19 and Hansbrough 18.
“They have great athletes and a great coach,” Few said. “He gets the best of the best and then he coaches them. It’s a lethal combination.
“We’ll have to play very, very well.”
Tennessee faces Butler in the other semifinal Wednesday, and the winners and losers of each game meet Friday.