North Carolina trying to take next step at ACC Tournament
WASHINGTON (AP) Expectations are high for the seventh-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels as the No. 1 seed at the ACC Tournament. That's nothing new for them.
The preseason pick to win the ACC, coach Roy Williams' team beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday to capture the regular-season title. Now it's on to the postseason.
Williams said it is just the ''next step'' for his oft-criticized group.
''I think it's probably the least appreciated, most criticized championship team I've ever had,'' Williams said. ''Everybody's (like): `Well, y'all are not tough, you blow this lead, y'all can't guard anybody, y'all can't shoot.' And I agree, but we figured out a way. So you've got to have some toughness there.''
It'll take more toughness to get through the deep ACC field this week, trying for the school's first ACC Tournament title since 2008. No. 19 Duke is on the same side of the bracket, and No. 4 Virginia or No. 11 Miami could be waiting in the final.
A year after blowing a lead to Notre Dame in the ACC final, the Tar Heels are determined not to let that happen again.
''We've got to finish it out,'' sophomore guard Joel Berry II. ''That's been a big thing for us, just finishing games. This year we're going to go in with the same mindset that we did last year - going in there and competing. Just this time, we've got to finish it out and accomplish that goal that we want.''
The competition will be tough, starting with an NCAA Tournament team as an opponent in either Syracuse or Pittsburgh. On the other side of the bracket, Miami is Virginia's biggest roadblock.
Virginia has ACC player of the year Malcolm Brogdon and plenty to prove this week.
''We realized how fine of a line it is with this year having lost and struggled in some tough games early in conference season,'' coach Tony Bennett said. ''I think when you are aware of that, the struggles that are out there and how close it is, it makes you understand how on-point you have to be in all those areas that are important to us.''
Virginia did beat North Carolina this season, something Miami coach Jim Larranaga said could be significant if those teams play in the final. He hopes the Hurricanes are there but knows the Tar Heels are the team to beat.
''I would think Carolina is the odds-on favorite because of winning the regular season and really beating up the top teams for the last two weeks,'' Larranaga said. ''They beat us at home, they beat Duke at Duke and they're playing very, very well.''
Here are some other things to watch at the ACC Tournament, which begins Tuesday:
`CAT' UNLEASHED: Anthony ''Cat'' Barber, who averages a conference-best 23.4 points a game, and N.C. State get the festivities started Tuesday at noon against Wake Forest with the winner to face Duke on Wednesday. ''Cat Barber's really good,'' Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said, offering the understatement of pre-tournament talk.
BUBBLE TROUBLE: The ACC has five NCAA Tournament locks in UNC, Virginia, Duke, Miami and Notre Dame, with Pittsburgh and Syracuse in good standing. The Panthers and Orange - who play Wednesday - have this last opportunity to strengthen their chances, and the likes of Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech have to make waves to quality for the field.
NOT IN THE CARDS: Louisville is not participating in the ACC Tournament because of its self-imposed postseason ban amid an NCAA investigation surrounding the team's escort scandal. The 15-team league will have a 14-team tournament for the second straight year after Syracuse didn't play in 2015.
LARRANAGA COMES HOME: Ten years after Larranaga led George Mason on one of the most improbable Final Four runs in history, he took the Hurricanes to his old arena for practice. The memories are about Mason, but Larranaga first wants to recapture Miami's 2013 magic when it won the ACC Tournament.
GOODBYE GREENSBORO: The tournament is in Washington for the first time since 2005, leaving the friendly confines of Greensboro, North Carolina. Coaches are split over whether variety is a good thing, but proximity hasn't meant much the past three years when Notre Dame, Virginia and Miami have won it.
AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia, contributed to this report.