The North Carolina Tar Heels have already punched their ticket to the annual March Madness, but last night's 22-point blowout victory over rival N.C. State has them thinking "Greensboro". Why, do you ask? Simple - "home" games in the first two rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament are up for grabs.
Because of the new format that the NCAA adopted two years ago, teams can stay within their own "pods" even if they are placed in a regional that wouldn't otherwise allow such flexibility. For instance, if the Tar Heels secure one of the top 4 seeds in their region, even if they are placed in the West Regional, they would still play their first two rounds in Greensboro, even though Greensboro is a traditional East Regional host city. This rewards good play from the top teams of the year, allowing them to not have to travel as far for first round games, and gives their fans an opportunity to watch them live.
Last year, Duke and North Carolina both played their first- and second-round games in Charlotte, even though both teams played in different regionals - Duke in the Southeast and UNC in the East. North Carolina went on to win the national championship last year over #1 Illinois.
So, why is North Carolina starting to feel that a home series in Greensboro is inevitable? The Tar Heels have played as well together and as consistently as they have all year, despite losing their top 7 scorers from last year's team to either graduation or the NBA draft. Despite predictions that the Heels were to finish in the bottom half of the ACC, they have now found themselves a half game out of second place in the conference, with two seemingly easy wins with Maryland and Virginia up next - both at home - and a showdown with top-ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. Whereas the Duke game is all but a guaranteed loss, the other two should be wins for the Heels, which could find themselves securing second place in a year they were supposed to be "bad".
The Tar Heels committed a season-low 6 turnovers last night against a team in NC State that prides itself on superior defense, a great motion offense, and experience far greater than the young Tar Heels. Along the way, senior leader David Noel scored a career-high 25 points in his last game in Raleigh, and pulled down 11 rebounds. The Heels dominated on the boards, which ultimately provided the cushion for the victory. With this impressive win against the 14th-ranked Wolfpack, along with come-from-behind wins against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech last week, the Heels are poised to make a late postseason run. This doesn't even include its victories against traditional powers Arizona and Kentucky (at Lexington).
With all of the good going on in Chapel Hill, would it be surprising if Carolina could somehow beat Duke at Duke, win the ACC tournament and perhaps go farther in the NCAAs than their bitter rivals 8 miles away in Durham? At this point, nothing would surprise me from these Tar Heels.