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Sweet 16 Preview East Regional - (11) Marquette vs. (2) North Carolina

Friday, 7:15 PM ET

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To paraphrase a line from the Wizard of Oz, “Roy Williams, you’re not playing in Kansas anymore.” However, while the North Carolina Tar Heels’ coach won’t be situated in his comfort zone, he can be thankful that this matchup doesn’t pose even greater problems for his team.

The second seed in the East Region, North Carolina, will play No. 11 seed Marquette in the Sweet 16 in the early evening game at the Prudential Center on Friday. The Tar Heels advanced to the regional semifinals with wins over No. 15 seed Long Island and seventh-seeded Washington in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the past weekend. Marquette reached the Sweet 16 with wins over sixth-seeded Xavier and third-seed Syracuse 66-62 in games on Friday and Sunday in Cleveland, Ohio.

On one hand, this game will be somewhat tricky for North Carolina and Williams, its highly successful coach. North Carolina needed every bit of home cooking to survive the first weekend of the NCAAs, scraping past Washington in a controversy-laden finish. Friendly officiating in North Carolina’s largest city, combined with generous clock “management” in the final seconds of regulation time, gave a slight extra nudge to the Tar Heels’ cause, all while shafting a Washington team that might have learned a lesson about playing hard during the regular season so that it could earn a high seed and thereby avoid having to travel across the country for opening-round games. It’s certainly fair to say that North Carolina might not have beaten Washington in Albuquerque or Denver or some far-flung place removed from Tobacco Road. However, because Carolina won the ACC, it earned the right to play close to home and subsequently made the most of it.

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Now, the equation changes a little in the Sweet 16, but it doesn’t change enough to make Williams break out in a cold sweat. The path for North Carolina certainly improved on Sunday evening, when Marquette knocked off Syracuse and altered the complexion of the East Regional. Syracuse won the national championship in 2003 when it got to play in the East Regional as a No. 3 seed in Albany, New York. This year, Syracuse was once again a third seed and had a chance to play in the regionals close to home in Newark, New Jersey. The absence of Syracuse from this game, plus the presence of a Marquette team that lost 14 games during the regular season and wobbled in the Big East Conference, will give North Carolina a markedly better shot in the Sweet 16. Yes, Marquette is a hot and confident team right now, but in the Sweet 16, the double-digit seed that gets on a roll during the first weekend of the tournament usually cools off and comes back down to earth.

The bottom line is that while North Carolina won’t be playing in Charlotte or anywhere else in the Carolinas, it won’t be playing a true road game against Syracuse. All in all, the Tar Heels should be happy with the hand they’ve been dealt… even though they won’t be able to taste home-cooking anymore in this NCAA Tournament.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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