Roy Williams and North Carolina go through strategy in advance of Friday's South Regional semifinal meeting with Butler as Tar Heels hope to salvage lackluster NCAA Tournament showing by ACC. (Photo by J.D. Lyon Jr./Tar Heel Photo)
Regarded as the deepest conference in the nation this season, and by some as the best top-to-bottom league in the sport, the Atlantic Coast Conference did not leave a favorable impression in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
With eight of its nine teams eliminated as the 68-team field was pared to 16, the ACC now places its trust squarely behind North Carolina, the last hope for the league to parlay its national championship in football; won this past January by Clemson, with one on the hardwood to match.
"This year, I was convinced we were by far the best league," Roy Williams said as his Tar Heels (29-7) take on the Butler Bulldogs in a South Regional semifinal Friday night in Memphis. "But we haven't shown it in the tournament. This year, they had us ranked first, but we haven't proven it in this tournament and that's the bottom line."
UNC, the top seed in the South, has experienced both ends of the spectrum in its two NCAA Tournament games. The Tar Heels enjoyed a comfortable victory over Texas Southern in first-round action, then needed a game-ending 12-0 run in Sunday's second round to escape an Arkansas team that had them on the ropes. Against a fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) team that plays fundamentally sound basketball and preys on their opponents' miscues, UNC will need to impose their will from the onset, something Joel Berry II openly admitted would be integral.
"I think the biggest thing is just sticking to our style of play and just getting up and down the court like we want to," Berry said of Friday's game plan. "We hadn't had a tough game like that (Arkansas) in a while, so to know that we can be down five with three minutes left and still win the game, that just shows the toughness that we have."
Berry himself has fought, shaking off a balky ankle in Sunday's win over Arkansas, and is closer to 100 percent than he was at this point a week ago, a good sign for the Tar Heels as they face a Butler team that junior guard Theo Pinson says is reminiscent of Virginia.
"They make everything tough," said Pinson of the Bulldogs. "They're always going to be there, it's just how they are. It's going to be more important for everybody to do better screening, getting open, working harder to get the ball and all the little things. It's more of a game just like Virginia."
UNC's latest fight is not only one to further the quest for redemption after last season's buzzer-beating loss to Villanova in the national championship, but also one in which the reputation of the ACC is at stake, and a harbinger of added motivation to extinguish the bitter memories from last April.
"We've got a lot of good teams, and to be the only one standing, I mean, that's what you want," said Berry. "We want to get farther than where we are now, but to be the only team left, it's an honor. We've just got to finish it out, and hopefully we can bring it back; the whole thing, to our conference."