JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — By Roy Williams’ own admission, it’s been a tough season for North Carolina.
The death of coach Dean Smith, an academic scandal that raised questions about whether the Tar Heels have lost their way off the court, and a poor record — at least by Carolina’s standards — have made it hard.
Heading back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament gives the coach and his players something to savor.
“I’m an emotional guy. … Losing Coach Smith, losing Ted Seagroves, my big-time buddy, Stuart Scott, the stuff that we’ve had going on, Mitch Kupchak’s daughter, it’s been a hard year, it really has,” Williams said after Saturday night’s 87-78 victory over fifth-seeded Arkansas. “I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while. I’m going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while.”
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels (26-11) head to Los Angeles for the West Regional semifinals, where they’ll play either top-seeded Wisconsin or No. 8 seed Oregon.
Sixth-seed Xavier also advanced from Jacksonville, making it to the Sweet 16 for the third time in six years and ending the biggest feel-good story of the tourney with a 75-67 win over Georgia State. The Musketeers will face No. 2 seed Arizona in Los Angeles.
It will be a cross-country trip for the Tar Heels, somewhat fitting given their path this season.
“We didn’t have the type of regular season we wanted to,” said Tar Heels star Marcus Paige, who scored a team-high 22 points against Arkansas. “We had some bumps in the road, and we weren’t a typical Carolina team in terms of our record this year and our seed and stuff.
“Our fans expect us to have a No. 1 seed overall every single year. Unfortunately it didn’t happen for us this year, but we understand the moment, and you’ve got to win six games. Once you’re slotted in the tournament and you’re in position, it’s up for grabs. And we knew that we had the talent, we had the capability, we just have to buy in and do what we’re told, and we’ve been playing a lot better. Even if we have a bad regular season by Carolina standards, you can make up some ground for that by playing well in the tournament and making things happen late in the season.”
Aside from Carolina advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years, here are some things to know about Saturday’s West Region matchups in Jacksonville:
TEARFUL ENDING: Georgia State coach Ron Hunter gave the NCAA Tournament maybe its most memorable clip. Hunter fell off his rolling stool after his son, R.J., hit an NBA-range 3-pointer to upset third-seeded Baylor in the round of 64. Hunter delivered another emotional moment when he started crying after Saturday’s loss while talking about being a proud father. “We’ll be back. We’re going to get some young guys, but it’s not even about that right now. As a coach, best time of my life, but as a father,” he said, pausing to wipe away the tears. “I love this kid, man. I love you.”
MEEKS INJURED: UNC sophomore Kennedy Meeks, a 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward who lost about 50 pounds after last season, sprained his left leg late in Saturday’s win against Arkansas. Meeks was standing under the rim when an Arkansas player fell into the side of his leg and bent it awkwardly. Meeks will be re-evaluated after the team gets back to Chapel Hill.
PRO PROSPECTS: Arkansas’ Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis could be NBA-bound. Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter might join them in the draft. If the three standouts do turn pro, their final college games were memorable despite coming in losing efforts. Qualls had 27 points and 10 rebounds, and Portis added 18 points and 14 boards in a loss to North Carolina. Hunter had 20 points, five assists and four rebounds in a loss to Xavier. “I just can’t wait to sit down and talk about this with my family and just talk about the season,” Hunter said. “Nothing else is on my mind, man. This is history, and like I said, I can’t wait to just go to sleep and wake up without any texts about being here, being there. Just excited to just reflect on this.”
PICK UP THE PACE: Arkansas and North Carolina played a frantic first half, with the teams combining for 79 shots and 75 points. Things slowed down considerably after the break thanks to fouls and free throws. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who was on the NCAA rules committee for six years, said he would like to see changes to the game. “I love a free-flowing game, but everybody doesn’t love it like that as coaches,” he said. “We all need to look at things we can do to perhaps speed things up or make it a more free-flowing game.”