Commentary

Tobacco Road paves way for North Carolina's championship bid

Originally Published: March 16, 2008
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Following his team's 86-81 win over Clemson in the ACC championship game, North Carolina coach Roy Williams wasted no time packing his team up and heading "down the road" to watch the Selection Sunday show in either Greensboro or Burlington -- halfway points between Charlotte and Chapel Hill.

Really, it was little more than a pit stop and a chance to get reacquainted with the bus. It's going to get some use next week.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRoy Williams' Tar Heels are undefeated in Charlotte this season.

Let's face it: The road to the Final Four might as well be renamed Tobacco Road.

With the No. 1 seed in the East Region locked up after winning the ACC tournament and regular season titles, No. 1-ranked North Carolina (32-2) is assured a home court advantage as it "travels" roughly 30 miles to Raleigh before possibly returning to Charlotte for a third time this season. (The Tar Heels played here in their season opener against Davidson.)

"I think it's definitely going to make a big difference next week in tournament play when we have the upper hand against other opponents because the atmosphere, the crowd is what can intimidate an opponent," said Danny Green. "That's the difference between your run being a six-point run or a 15-point run. It can rattle some teams. Once it rattles a team and the crowd is standing up, it gives us more energy and it could turn into a blowout."

North Carolina didn't exactly manhandle Virginia Tech and Clemson this weekend, but the Tar Heels certainly were the crowd favorites en route to their league-leading 17th ACC title. Roughly three-quarters of the packed Charlotte Bobcats Arena crowd was Carolina-clad fans wearing their baby blues. Clemson represented well, but make no mistake, this was a home game, and that's exactly how Ty Lawson expects it to stay.

"It's a big advantage," said Lawson. "We don't have to travel as much. I mean, Raleigh is 30 minutes from us. Charlotte is two hours from us. We don't get jet lag or anything like that and also the fans -- they're great. We played against Florida State and Va. Tech, they helped us through tough times, giving us energy and screaming, things like that."

For the past month, Williams has been reminded by the media how this postseason scenario could possibly play out, but he said earlier this week that until recently, he didn't know which Carolina cities were actually hosting. (He said he'd never play golf again if he was lying about that.)

"I'm being honest; I don't look down the line," he said. "In 1994-95 everybody said the same thing all you guys are doing right now, that if you could just win the first two games you'll get back to Kansas City -- and we had a pretty doggone good basketball team. So we won the first two games and got back to Kansas City and got our butts kicked. So since that time, I've never been concerned about where we play."

Remember the last time the Tar Heels went through Charlotte in the NCAA tournament? They won it. And Clemson coach Oliver Purnell, who coached against Williams' 2005 national championship team, said UNC can do it again.

[+] EnlargeTy Lawson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireTy Lawson knows staying close to home can be an advantage in the NCAA tournament.

"They're built for a title run," Purnell said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Williams downplayed any advantage of staying in-state for the NCAA tournament, promptly pointing out that a crowd has never won a game.

"We lost two games this year," he said. "We were in the Smith Center. If the crowd was the factor, we wouldn't have lost any."

They haven't lost in Charlotte and they've played four games here already.

"We know the court, we know the rims," Lawson said. "We've played here before, so we have an advantage over other teams."

Senior guard Quentin Thomas and Williams are the lone leftovers from that 2005 national championship team. Thomas said winning the ACC title wasn't enough.

"We want to achieve one more goal," he said, "and that is a national championship."

In order to get there, stay straight on Tobacco Road.

Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.

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