GREENVILLE, SC – Carolina and Duke both can blame HB2 for having to face a difficult second-round doubleheader here Sunday evening. (Tar Heels tip off at 6:10, followed by Blue Devils, both on TNT).
These first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, as you well know, were originally scheduled for the Greensboro Coliseum but moved out of state (along with the ACC football championship game, the NBA All-Star game, the ACC baseball tournament and various other events) because of the controversial “bathroom bill” passed by the state legislature last year.
Now the Tar Heels face a long and talented eighth-seeded Arkansas team without the heavily partisan crowd that would have descended upon Greensboro, and Duke plays what amounts to a road game against the rugged South Carolina Gamecocks. Both high seeds will have their hands full.
UNC will get the kind of fast-paced game it favors against the Razorbacks, who are led by 6-10 Moses Kingsley, the All-SEC forward (second team and first team All-Defense), who had the best all-around performance of his senior season in the first-round comebacker against Seton Hall. The agile Kingsley tallied 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, six rebounds and four blocked shots.
Arkansas cannot beat the Tar Heels at their best, but Joel Berry’s sprained ankle in the 39-point romp over Texas Southern and his recent shooting slump from the team’s point guard and engine are of concern. Thankfully, Justin Jackson regained his ACC Player of the Year touch by canning 5 of his 8 long bombs on the way to 21 points. Carolina’s one-sided win amounted to a warm-up game against TSU, which is coached by Mike Davis, who 15 years ago after succeeding the fired Bob Knight led Indiana to the last night of the Big Dance before losing to Maryland.
The Heels never looked back after a 14-point run broke a 10-10 tie with every player on the roster getting his name in the box score and all but two of them scoring. Most notable amongst those subs were Nate Britt’s five assists and two three pointers in 18 minutes and Luke Maye’s 10 points and 9 rebounds in 19. For Tar Heel trivia buffs, last man Kanler Coker had four points and became only the second UNC athlete (after Ronald Curry) to both take a snap as quarterback of the football team and score for the basketballers.
The crowd Sunday night in the 14,000-plus seat Bon Secours Wellness Arena will be heavily garnet-draped Gamecocks rooting for SEC brethren Arkansas and against the school South Carolina has hated since it bolted the ACC in 1971. Those were the hostile days of Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire, the mentor to Dean Smith who took over when McGuire left Chapel Hill and easily surpassed the Irishman’s program in 36 seasons of 879 wins and multiple championships.
McGuire, who resurfaced in Columbia, coached the last South Carolina team to win an NCAA tournament game in 1973 – 44 years ago, if you are counting – and the program current coach Frank Martin is building has a rabid fan base that is believing again. That HB2 turned this event into political ping-pong is ironic, since the state of South Carolina has only been granted NCAA championship events since the Confederate flag was lowered from above the state house.
If most South Carolina alumni and fans don’t remember much about their school’s volatile ACC days, few if any may recall there is an equally deep-seated disdain for Duke, which will face the Gamecocks after shaking off tenacious Troy in the other 1-16 first-round game here.
The dislike for Duke goes back almost 50 years to when the ACC denied McGuire 5-star recruit Mike Grosso a scholarship after an investigation led by then Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron found out someone else had taken the SATs for Grosso. An uncle of Grosso was paying for his scholarship until the ACC deemed that was also a violation and ruled Grosso ineligible.
The Duke-South Carolina rivalry was contentious enough in the late 1960s that, one season, the home-and-home series was cancelled from fear of players fighting during the games. So the bad blood has lingered for decades, even though most Gamecock fans don’t even know from whence it came.
Not only will the Blue Devils face a virtual road game, they will have to counter a style that can be troublesome for this finesse team. South Carolina may be inconsistent when possessing the basketball, but the Gamecocks’ defense under Martin is notoriously aggressive bordering on dirty. It will initiate the kind of contact away from the basket that could bother the free-flowing Duke offense.
South Carolina used that uber-in-your face defense to hold Marquette scoreless over a crucial second half stretch and run away from the Warriors, coached by former Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski, whose team led early by hitting 8 of 16 three-pointers in the first half before wilting to the Gamecocks’ relentless pressure in the second.
For a while, it looked like a kumbaya Polish reunion was brewing between Mike Krzyzewski and his former point guard and assistant coach until South Carolina ignited the “home” crowd with its belligerent brand of defense that triggered the Gamecocks best half of the season and its first 90-point game since January.
“They’re a team that plays very hard and is incredibly physical,” Wojo said, then added the phrase that will get his old coach’s attention for sure. “They were allowed to play really physical tonight.”
That is something the legendary Coach K will surely address with the officials prior to the tip-off at 8:40 Sunday night. It’s the game within the game that Krzyzewski often plays and, more often than not, wins that one, too.
The crazed capacity crowd, which was once to be heavily pro Carolina and Duke before politics interceded, will try to influence both outcomes from its position, as well. Either way, it will be a second round to remember.