North Carolina got a nice reward for being a No. 1 seed - easy travel plans for its first-round NCAA tournament game.
The top seed in the East Regional, the Tar Heels face Eastern Kentucky in Winston-Salem on Thursday night as they begin their quest for a second national championship in three seasons.
The Tar Heels (28-6) will be making their third visit to Winston-Salem, home of ACC rival Wake Forest, in NCAA tournament play. They went 2-0 in 1993 on their way to the national championship, and 2-0 in 1997 when they advanced to the Final Four.
Winston-Salem is about 75 miles from Chapel Hill, and North Carolina (28-6) beat the Demon Deacons 88-60 on Jan. 24 in the same building it will play in Thursday.
“I’m very excited to be playing at home in Winston-Salem, but my main focus is on doing what we need to do,” said Tar Heels senior Reyshawn Terry, a native of the city. “My mom might be more excited than I am.”
Terry is one of the few North Carolina players remaining from the 2004-05 squad that captured the school’s fourth national title. The current roster includes 10 freshmen and sophomores, but the young Tar Heels came together to earn a share of the ACC regular season championship.
They went on to win the conference tournament for the first time since 1998, earning a top seed in the NCAAs for a record 11th time.
“We are extremely excited about our season and about earning a No. 1 seed,” said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who has won a first-round game in 17 consecutive seasons to tie former North Carolina coach Dean Smith for the most all-time. “We should have some confidence from winning the ACC tournament, but as I’ve always said, you build your momentum in the NCAA tournament. I’m pleased for our fans that we’re staying in North Carolina.”
The Tar Heels are led by All-ACC sophomore Tyler Hansbrough, who averaged 18.1 points and 7.9 rebounds to top the team in both categories for the second straight season. Hansbrough, though, was forced to play with a protective mask during the conference tournament because of a broken nose, suffered on a hit from Duke’s Gerald Henderson in the Tar Heels’ 86-72 win in their regular-season finale.
The mask hindered Hansbrough, and he averaged just 10.0 points on 39.0 percent shooting in the tournament, although he did go 11-for-11 from the foul line in the Tar Heels’ 89-80 win over North Carolina State in Sunday’s title game.
North Carolina freshman Brandan Wright was named tournament MVP after averaging 15.7 points on 68.8 percent shooting. He wasn’t around for last year’s NCAA tournament, when the third-seeded Tar Heels were bounced in the second round by upstart George Mason.
Eastern Kentucky (21-11) would no doubt like to spoil North Carolina’s title dreams, but the Colonels face long odds as the worst seed in the region. A No. 1 seed has yet to lose to a No. 16 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, and Ohio Valley Conference schools have lost 17 straight first-round contests.
Last year, North Carolina beat Murray State, another OVC team, in the opening round.
“Obviously we’ve got one of the most storied programs in all the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said of the first-round matchup. “The first thing you’ve got to do is find a way to slow them down. We know if it’s a high-scoring game, we have very little chance.”
The Colonels are back in the tournament for the second time in three seasons. As a No. 15 seed, they lost 72-64 to Kentucky in 2005 after earning the school’s first NCAA bid since 1979.
Eastern Kentucky was picked to finish eighth in the OVC this season, but finished second and upset top seed Austin Peay in the conference championship game when freshman Josh Taylor hit a layup with 2.9 seconds remaining for a 63-62 victory.
Eastern Kentucky, 0-6 in the NCAA tournament, actually beat North Carolina in the schools’ only meeting, though that 85-62 victory came during the 1950-51 season.
Thursday’s winner faces eighth-seeded Marquette or No. 9 Michigan State in the second round.