The chances fourth-ranked Carolina will just coast to a victory against 16-seeded Vermont in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament for the Tar Heels appear unlikely.
The Catamounts (24-11) looked quite impressive in defeating Lamar (23-12) in the play-in game between the two on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio. Vermont won 71-59 and played as well as the spread in the score indicated. The words well-coached are thrown around like rice at a wedding in the sports world, but they are appropriate for Vermont.
This team plays intelligently. It plays hard. And it plays together. Those are three attributes most coaches try to get from their players but not all succeed.
John Becker has achieved this in his first season as the Catamounts coach.
"I was extremely impressed with their intelligence on the offensive end of the floor," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "They work really hard defensively. On offense, the right guy shoots the ball. They used the clock. They ran it down to the end and got great shots at the end."
No 16 seed has ever defeated a No. 1 seed during the span in which the field has been seeded, but Becker told his team there will be a first time some day. He said that the Catamounts have every reason to believe it can be them.
"The big thing is we're very confident, but we understand the task in front of us and our guys understand that no 16 seed has ever won," Becker said. "But I told the guys, mathematically we can't win this game; no one's ever won this game. But Murphy's law says it's going to happen at some point, and why not us?
"So we're taking that approach, just making the guys believe. We got a game plan, and there's something about this group, and I believe in these guys. We're going to come out expecting to win and try to hang around. And the longer we can hang around, the better it will be, and we'll see what happens."
ACC player of the year Tyler Zeller said that he watched Vermont play Lamar, and the Catamounts made a strong impression.
"They did a fantastic job of playing as a team," Zeller said. "They didn't have a turnover until 11 or 12 minutes left in the first half, which is very impressive."
Kendall Marshall knows a good basketball team when he sees one, and he has no doubts as to Vermont's credentials for being in this tournament.
He said he expects Vermont to play another precise game against UNC. The Tar Heels (29-4) will have to wear the Catamounts down through the course of the game and not necessarily try to force the issue.
"I did watch it, and Vermont did a very good job of playing as a team," Marshall said. "One thing we have to do is not get frustrated. They do a great job of running their offense and really looking for the best shot available. There are no selfish players on their team."
Carolina forward John Henson practiced on Thursday, but he was limited in what he could do, Williams said. This means Williams is not sure whether Henson will play on Friday at approximately 4:10 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Henson fell on his left wrist in the opening game for UNC in the ACC Tournament. He sat out the rest of that game and the last two in Atlanta. He has practiced on a limited basis this week.
"We practiced [Thursday] morning," Williams said. "John did a little more than he did yesterday. We let him in some live situations. He did not shoot the ball a single time with his left hand. He did not block any shots left-handed. So I'm extremely concerned about that part of it. You guys who have seen us play; that is hit dominant hand in a big way.
"If the game were played [Thursday], he felt like he could play. I'm convinced. But it's a two-part thing. He has to feel comfortable that he can play, and I have to decide whether his play will be effective. I really don't know. I am not leaning in any direction."
The key for Carolina is to play hard and together from the outset, regardless of whether Henson plays or not. This team has been through enough this year to have learned what it needs to know. Now is the time to execute.
"Games in which we came out and felt like we had something to prove," Marshall said, "we've played hard; we've played well; we played with intensity.
"Games where we went out there because it was another game on the schedule, it showed. We didn't play to our full capability."
The best example of this was the 88-70 victory at Duke in the regular-season finale. This team played on a level similar to the 2009 team's play in the NCAA Tournament in route to the national championship.
Everyone who played, performed with confidence. The team's focus clearly reached a different level than it had been in much of the year. The Tar Heels' concentration was intense and consistent. In turn, their execution followed suit.
"The thing I've focused on for the last month is wanting to be remembered for what we've done on the court, trying to leave a legendary mark," Marshall said. "Individually, Z is going to be in the rafters. That is legendary. No one can take that away from him.
"Individually, whether we get other accolades, as a team we have a chance to put a banner up there to be legendary. I feel like everybody is appreciating that and taking it in stride and trying to make the most of it."