As much as this NCAA Tournament will be unprecedented in many areas, a couple of teams accustomed to being factors will be on hand.
One will be gone relatively soon because North Carolina and Wisconsin face off Friday in a South Region first-round game in West Lafayette, Ind.
“This will be an unusual tournament to say the least, but particularly for our coaches, because we have so many young players who will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Wisconsin will be a big-time challenge, but we played our way into our seed and we will have to play very well to advance. But we are looking forward to having that opportunity.”
North Carolina (18-10) is the No. 8 seed. Wisconsin (17-12) is seeded No. 9. The winner advances to face against either top-seeded Baylor or 16th-seeded Hartford in the second round.
North Carolina has won three of its past four games, falling to Florida State by 69-66 in Friday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal round.
The Tar Heels feel they’re trending in the right direction.
“There were a couple of times during the season when we were wondering whether or not we would make the field, but our team kept getting a little bit better and better,” Williams said. “So I’m just ecstatic for these kids, who … have an opportunity to continue their season.”
North Carolina went 2-1 in the ACC tournament. There were certain benefits.
“I think we just found out how deep we are, and we really got guys that come in and give us a lift off the bench,” guard Caleb Love said. “We can really play 10, 12 guys. … I think we learned a lot.”
Wisconsin is one of five schools selected for the NCAA Tournament 21 times across a 22-year span.
The Badgers enter the NCAAs having lost four of their last five games. Each of those setbacks came to a nationally ranked opponent. The lone victory was a one-point decision against Penn State in last week’s Big Ten tournament.
“Our guys were fired up to know that they have this opportunity in front of them,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said of the at-large selection. “As I told them the other night after the Iowa game, it doesn’t matter — I’ve been on teams that have been seeded one all the way to 12 — your anticipation, your anxiety isn’t going to be different from one seed to the next.”
Gard said the opponent is familiar in some ways.
“I recognize some names on the roster, and obviously the rebounding component, the transition, the things that North Carolina has always been known for years and years will be a point of study as we go through this week,” Gard said.
North Carolina has six players who average more than eight points per game, topped by Armando Bacot at 12.3. He’s also the team’s leading rebounder with 8.0 per game.
The Tar Heels played well for the most part in the past month, with a two-point loss at Syracuse among the hiccups. The main dismal performance was against a team from Wisconsin, with Marquette visiting Chapel Hill, N.C., and thumping the Tar Heels 83-70 on Feb. 24.
This is an early meeting in the NCAA Tournament compared to past matchups between the Tar Heels and Badgers. North Carolina won a 2005 Elite Eight game, while Wisconsin prevailed in a 2015 Sweet 16 encounter.
The venue for the Wisconsin-North Carolina meeting will be familiar for the Badgers. The game is set for Purdue’s Mackey Arena, where Wisconsin lost March 2 to Purdue.
–Field Level Media