Saturday, March 22, 2008


UNC, Davidson Enjoy Home Feel of RBC Center
By Barry Jacobs

There are two home teams playing this Sunday afternoon at the RBC Center in the second round of the NCAA East Region.

One, as expected, is ACC champion North Carolina, which made short work of the 16 seed, Mount St. Mary’s, 113-74. The top ranked, top seeded Tar Heels are now 22-1 in NCAA Tournament games played within the state. They face No. 9 Arkansas, which decisively handled No. 8 Indiana in its opener.

The other entrant with strong RBC support is not another ACC school, as happened in 2004, the last time the tournament was played in Raleigh. That year, Duke and Wake Forest were here. Rather, the darling of fans, at least during its 82-76 opening round upset of No. 7 Gonzaga, was Davidson College of the Southern Conference.

“Yesterday was unbelievable,” said Jason Richards of the 10th-seeded Wildcats. “The whole crowd in the arena starting cheering for us, which was very nice. Hopefully it will be that way tomorrow.”

The victory by Davidson, paced by 40 points from sophomore All-America Stephen Curry, was the first in NCAA competition by a SoCon school since Chattanooga won twice in 1997, and the first by Davidson, a national power 40 years ago, in six tries since 1969.

Curry’s scoring total was a new individual record for N.C. State’s home arena. “The kid makes tough, contested shots with guys draped all over him,” said John Thompson III, head coach at Georgetown. “You got any suggestions? Because no one has guarded him yet.”

Davidson, a school with an enrollment of 1,700 that is located just north of Charlotte, will face second seed Georgetown, which painfully vanquished UNC for the right to go to the 2007 Final Four. That matchup at 2:50 PM should ensure plenty of support from Tar Heel faithful on hand to see their team tip off at 5:20 PM. The games are sold out.

The Wildcats, winners of 23 in a row, the nation’s longest current streak, are poised and experienced. Their strength is their backcourt of Curry, averaging 25.5 points, and playmaker Richards, the Division I leader in assists per game (8.0).

But Davidson, 27-6, is smaller, less athletic, and certainly less heralded than the Hoyas, a team that paces the nation in field goal percentage defense (.366) and is fifth in scoring defense (57.6). “They are a team of defenders, that’s what makes them efficient defensively,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “You have to find a crack here, an opening there...You need to steal points against them to be successful.”

The Big East power, 28-5 and second-seeded in the Midwest, is led by 7-2 center Roy Hibbert in both scoring (13.6 points) and rebounds (6.5). Georgetown employs its usual physical brand of defense, and spreads the court with its offense, a style not unlike that played by Davidson.

A rugged early nonconference schedule that included games against North Carolina, Duke, and UCLA should help the Wildcats. They lost all three contests, but went against powerful big men Kevin Love of UCLA and UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough. That makes the challenge of handling Hibbard and company a bit less daunting.

Hansbrough and the Tar Heels’ frontline will face their own challenge against Arkansas (23-11). The Razorbacks delivered Indiana’s fourth loss in seven games since assistant Dan Dakich took over for fired Kelvin Sampson, implicated in a pattern of NCAA rule-breaking.

Arkansas possesses a wealth of frontcourt size, led by a pair of 6-10 seniors, Darian Townes and Vincent Hunter. Steven Hill, a 7-foot reserve whose headband almost controls the long locks that flow seamlessly into his full beard, was fourth in the Southeastern Conference with 2.2 blocked shots per game. Facing that array, and more, UNC coach Roy Williams said Hansbrough, his All-America, must make quicker decisions with the ball.

For all its height, Arkansas is led in rebounding by 6-1 guard Patrick Beverley (6.7).

The team’s top scorer is senior wing Sonny Weems, who had 31 points against the Hoosiers on 12 of 14 shooting from the floor, a performance overshadowed by Curry’s outburst earlier in the day. On a squad that has more turnovers than assists, senior Gary Ervin is the floor leader.

“I think they’re a very good basketball team,” Williams said. He noted recent Arkansas wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee in the SEC Tournament – part of a 9-8 finish to the season -- and ticked off the team’s strengths. “Their athleticism. The guys that can score. The pace they play. They’re unselfish. Defense, they play man, they play zone, they press. They don’t let you get in rhythm.”

Yet that very propensity to press, and an appetite to quickly convert defensive rebounds into fast break opportunities, plays right into the hands of the 33-2 Tar Heels.

“About the style of play, we like to run up and down the court, so they’re playing our style of play, which makes us a lot more comfortable,” said UNC point guard Ty Lawson. Williams said his playmaker still lacks the explosiveness he possessed prior to injuring his ankle seven weeks ago.

Arkansas’ first-year coach, John Pelphrey, a former Kentucky player (1989-92), was involved in one of the great games in tournament history when UK was defeated in overtime by Duke, 104-103, on Christian Laettner’s shot at the buzzer in the 1992 East Region final. He also lost twice at Kentucky during the regular season to North Carolina, a program he spoke of with near reverence.

“They play the game the right way,” Pelphrey said of Williams' squad. “They don’t turn it over a lot. They shoot the ball. They’re a team. They have tremendous depth. As fast as anybody we’ll play, make or miss.”

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