Tar Heels enjoying feel of home in NCAA tournament

GREENSBORO, N.C. | The stands are packed with fans wearing light blue. They scream wildly at the first sight of North Carolina's players jogging onto the court for pregame warmups, then spend the rest of the game cheering their every move.

It's the kind of environment one would expect for a game in the arena named for famed coach Dean Smith on the Chapel Hill campus. But this is the NCAA tournament, and once again the Tar Heels haven't had to leave the comfort of their home state.

When the Tar Heels face LSU in Saturday's second round, it will mark the eighth time in 11 tournament games that the South Region's top seed is playing in North Carolina. While coach Roy Williams often points out that "the building doesn't beat you," it certainly gives an edge to a team that would be favored against nearly any other team in the field on a neutral court.

"I think we've definitely earned it," senior Danny Green said Friday. "Us being in Greensboro is a big advantage and we have our fans here. I feel like anywhere we go, we'll have our fans there regardless. But it's good to be close to home."

It's the third straight year the Tar Heels (29-4) have opened in North Carolina, where they are 26-1 in NCAA tournament games.

In 2007, the Tar Heels began in Winston-Salem, home to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Wake Forest. Last year, North Carolina didn't have to leave the state to reach the Final Four, playing its first two games a short drive from campus in Raleigh before making the 2½-hour trip to Charlotte for the regional rounds.

This time, the Tar Heels are about an hour's drive from Chapel Hill. They treated their fans to an easy 101-58 win over Radford in Thursday's first round, which included Tyler Hansbrough becoming the ACC's career scoring leader.

Yet LSU (27-7), which reached as high as 12th in the rankings, shrugs off the notion of a homecourt advantage.

"We knew it was going to be like this when we found out what bracket we were in," LSU senior Garrett Temple said. "It's going to be like a road game. But we're looking at it as they've got to come and play ball just like we've got to come and play ball. The fans can't win the game."

There's another factor that figures to have a bigger impact on the outcome: the health of North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson.

The ACC player of the year has missed the past three games with a jammed right big toe, an injury sustained in practice two days before the regular-season finale against Duke. He played 36 minutes that game, but the toe swelled unexpectedly the next day and has kept him out since.

Lawson's injury has become such a frequent topic that Williams opened his news conference Friday by saying, "I don't know. Now we can go to the questions." He later said Lawson would need to practice Friday afternoon, then see if there was swelling later in the evening. The decision would come once the Tar Heels see how Lawson feels in the hours leading up to tipoff.

For his part, Lawson said he "probably" will play. And Williams won't hold him out another game just to let him get healthier for the rest of the tournament.

"I've never, ever been in an NCAA tournament that I didn't think every round after that first round was going to go down to the wire," Williams said. "The fear for me is, No. 1, that we have to play well or it doesn't make no difference how Ty's toe feels."

The eighth-seeded Tigers are in the NCAAs for the first time since reaching the Final Four in 2006, advancing to the second round by holding off a late push from Butler in a 75-71 win. But coach Trent Johnson believes his team has enough experience and toughness to handle what will be a hostile environment.

Temple, fellow senior Chris Johnson and redshirt junior Tasmin Mitchell were all freshmen on that '06 Final Four team. Mitchell averaged 11 points on that squad, while Temple shut down national player of the year J.J. Redick in LSU's upset of top-seeded Duke in the round of 16.

"There will be 20-thousand-plus people here, I guess, cheering for Carolina," said Johnson, who led Nevada and Stanford to the NCAA tournament before coming to LSU. "We've been to our share of tough venues."

LSU will need another big game from SEC player of the year Marcus Thornton, who is averaging 21 points per game. He scored 30 on 10-for-15 shooting against the Bulldogs — a performance that Williams called "scary" — while Mitchell had 14 as the Tigers scored the first nine points on the way to shooting 49 percent.

As for the homecourt advantage, Williams noted he was an assistant on the only North Carolina team to lose an NCAA game in the state. In 1979, the Tar Heels lost to Penn 72-71 in Raleigh, while rival Duke lost to St. John's in the next game — a day fans around these parts still refer to as "Black Sunday."

In a coincidence, Duke plays Texas in an East Regional game in Greensboro right after the North Carolina-LSU matchup.

"I was sitting on the bench with the one on 'Black Sunday,' so don't tell me the frickin' building wins a game," Williams said. "I've never seen a building beat me yet. I've never seen a crowd win it for me. It's got to be the players playing the game."