The NCAA men's basketball tournament resumes today with top-ranked North Carolina taking on Washington State. Other games pit UCLA against Western Kentucky, Tennessee vs. Louisville and West Virginia vs. Xavier.
In a perfect world, Roy Williams never would see his North Carolina team stop running. The Tar Heels would sprint out in transition on every possession. They'd push the ball ahead for get-you-right-back baskets to answer scores. And, by the end, their offense would leave demoralized opponents struggling to catch their breath.
His team lived up to that standard last weekend to start the NCAA tournament. Yet Williams knows that the No. 1 overall seed can't keep scoring at that pace, especially against a Washington State team that has been just as impressive defensively to reach Thursday's East Regional semifinals.
Of course, Williams figures his team can win a boring ol' halfcourt game, too.
"I like to win in the 80s and 90s, but to ... reach the dreams that we have and be the team we want to be, you've got to be able to win at somebody else's different tempo," Williams said Wednesday. "It can't be your own comfort zone all the time, and for the most part I've had teams in the past that could win in the 50s and 60s. I just enjoy it more if it's 80s and 90s."
The Tar Heels (34-2) rank second nationally in scoring (89.9 points) while reaching the century mark eight times this year. That includes last weekend's routs in Raleigh — located about a half-hour drive from the Chapel Hill campus — where they beat 16th-seeded Mount St. Mary's 113-74 then No. 9 seed Arkansas 108-77. It marked the first time a team had scored 100 points in each of its first two NCAA games since Loyola Marymount did it against New Mexico State and Michigan in 1990.
This time, the Tar Heels are about two hours from home and figure to have another home-state crowd behind them. They're also 6-0 in Charlotte Bobcats Arena — including a season-opening win against Davidson and a three-game run through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament two weeks ago — and are 23-1 in NCAA games played in their home state.
"It's just a huge mental thing to have played so well in this arena and had so much success here," junior Marcus Ginyard said. "This just feels like a second home for us. To have that confidence and that edge mentally is huge for this team."
Still, the Tar Heels know their latest trip here likely will be just as tough as earlier visits. They edged Stephen Curry and Davidson 72-68 in November, then fought their way through the ACC tournament, which included a 68-66 win over Virginia Tech on Tyler Hansbrough's last-second jumper in the semifinals.
Now they face the fourth-seeded Cougars (26-8), a team that has been almost as dominating in the NCAAs behind a focus-on-fundamentals philosophy and a defense that held Winthrop and Notre Dame to a combined 81 points.
Washington State, appearing in the round of 16 for the first time, ranks second nationally in scoring defense (56.1 points per game). Their offense averages 67 points per game in a system that coach Tony Bennett picked up from his father, Dick, the former Wisconsin coach who preceded his son in Pullman, Wash.
"There are so many different ways of playing the game and being successful," Tony Bennett said. "For us, it's just trying to be as solid as we can in the halfcourt defensively, be sound with the basketball and not turn it over, and get good shots.
"The system that we run, everyone has this perception — I'm used to it — that it's boring, it's slow, it's not fun. I think we play good basketball."
His players believe in the system, which helped them tie last season's school record for wins.
"If you look at our team, you're not going to think we're just going to overpower people with size, athleticism or anything like that," junior Taylor Rochestie said. "But to come together as a unit and get stops, we take a lot of pride in that and it gives us the ability to win at the highest stage."
Still, the Cougars haven't faced an offense quite like North Carolina's. Hansbrough has been unstoppable all season inside, while perimeter players Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green have given the Tar Heels plenty of balance.
In addition, North Carolina has proven it can win at a slower pace. The Tar Heels are 6-1 when failing to score at least 80 points, with the only loss being an 89-78 loss to Duke in which Lawson sat out with an injury. Their lowest output was 66 points in a win at Ohio State in November.
"I don't think we came into either of those two (NCAA) games with a high expectation that we were going to score 100 points," sophomore Deon Thompson said. "It was just the flow of the game. Coach always says that we can win games in the 50s if we have to. If it has to be a low-scoring game, then we're fine with that."