RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Deon Thompson and his North Carolina teammates looked at home in their RBC Center locker room, so much so that it almost felt more like an Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game than the start of the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels merely had to hop on a bus for a short ride east on Interstate 40 to an arena where they play every season against one of their biggest rivals.
But don’t expect the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed to get too comfy in the familiar surroundings for Friday’s first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s— not with that massive NCAA logo staring at them at midcourt as a reminder that a season’s worth of success can end with one bad performance.
“There’s a different symbol on the court,” Thompson said Thursday, “so you’re going to take it as something different.”
That’s not to say the Tar Heels (32-2) don’t feel they have earned an advantage by playing their way here, the home arena for rival North Carolina State. They ran down Duke for the ACC regular-season title after trailing the Blue Devils by two games in February, then survived a tough three-game run through the league tournament in Charlotte last week.
If they beat the Mountaineers (19-14) and the Indiana-Arkansas winner in Sunday’s second round, they can get back there for next weekend’s regionals and a chance to go to the Final Four. North Carolina is 21-1 in NCAA tournament games played in its home state.
But while they fought all season for that coveted draw, the Tar Heels don’t act as though they believe they have an easy path to San Antonio. They’re walking the line between being happy to have a blue-tinged home crowd and treating the tournament the same way they would if they were playing hours from home.
The players started by deciding not to sleep in their own beds, opting instead to stay in a hotel in nearby Cary when given a choice by coach Roy Williams.
“We’re just hoping to keep everybody’s head right here in Raleigh, not have friends and things like that we’d have to worry about in Chapel Hill,” junior Marcus Ginyard said. “It’s just get everybody here, everybody continue to stay focused and be ready to play.”
Williams has been the same way, routinely dismissing questions in recent weeks about the importance of playing close to home by saying that a building has never won a game for him. He even has cited an example several times: Virginia upset his top-seeded Kansas team in an NCAA round-of-16 game played in Kansas City, Mo., in 1995.
Of course, Mount St. Mary’s—which beat Coppin State in Tuesday’s play-in game to earn the No. 16 seed in the East Regional—figures it’s just another disadvantage to overcome in what looks to be a daunting matchup.
“It’s going to take a tremendous effort, no question about that,” Mountaineers coach Milan Brown said. “We’re going to put our best foot forward and believe in the dream that we can get it done.
“We’ll show up with a rock and a slingshot, man.”
If anything, the Tar Heels can look back on the start of last year’s tournament run, played in similar circumstances, as a reminder of what not to do. The top-seeded Tar Heels romped to a 27-point first-half lead against No. 16 seed Eastern Kentucky in Winston-Salem before the Colonels rallied to within four points early after the break.
The Tar Heels, playing in front of a crowd where most fans wore light blue and cheered their every move, eventually took an 86-65 win.
All-American Tyler Hansbrough figured it would catch him “off-guard at first” to see blue-clad fans Friday night in the seats normally filled with rowdy and obnoxious fans wearing red and spewing insults at them, as in their visit here last month.
Then again, it beats leaving the state.
“It’s going to be weird being in a State gym and seeing Carolina blue,” junior Danny Green said. “We’re going to try to use every advantage we have possible, and I feel like this is an advantage for us.”