History on side of UNC-Villanova winner
North Carolina and Villanova squaring off in the NCAA tournament isn't a toss-away game to be taken lightly. When these teams meet in March, the winner usually has an extended stay in the big dance.
In 2005, the teams met in a dramatic Sweet 16 game in Syracuse that included highlight-reel plays, tons of emotion and a controversial call that probably still sticks with Villanova supporters to this day. Four years later, the Tar Heels steamrolled the Wildcats in the Final Four on their way to an emphatic national championship.
In fact, UNC also won the title in 2005. But that's no different in how you look at the history of Villanova-UNC battles in the NCAA Tournament. The winner always fares quite well.
The programs have met five times in the NCAAs, with four of the winners moving on to capture the national championship.
In addition to the already mentioned titles by UNC, the Tar Heels also won it all in 1982 after beating the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and Villanova returned the favor by holding off Carolina in the Elite Eight in 1985. Nine days later, Rollie Massimino's team shocked Georgetown to win the national championship.
In the other meeting, UNC beat the Wildcats in the second round in 1991 and later advanced to the Final Four.
Yet, even with the positive karma that has followed past winners when these programs have met, the team that advances Friday in Kansas City may be in for a short stay. UNC is the No. 8 seed and Villanova the No. 9 seed, and likely waiting for the team that advances is top-seed Kansas, which will play this weekend about 45 miles from its campus.
But before anyone can think of taking on the Jayhawks and the potential side-show drama that would take place if Roy Williams has to face his former program, the Tar Heels need to worry about themselves, first, and Villanova, second.
UNC (24-10) is coming off a nice run to the title game of the ACC Tournament, which ended with a loss to Miami. It was the third time this season the Tar Heels had lost to the Hurricanes, but the obvious improvement by North Carolina, with Miami as the measuring stick, lends reason for optimism for UNC. But only if the Heels are ready to go.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland says being ready to play isn't an option.
"Well, I think I can speak for the other guys, but we love playing together so much and are having so much fun that we don't want it to end," he said. "As for me, I want to wear this uniform as much as I can. I don't care who we have to play or where we have to play them, I am going to be ready to go."
The Heels just weren't playing that well before Williams altered his lineup following a 26-point loss to the Hurricanes on Feb. 9. But going small pumped life into the team and they have been excellent ever since, going 8-3 with the defeats coming to Duke twice and the Canes just a few days ago.
Williams spoke after the game with the kind of emotion usually reserved for a loss that ends a season.
"Well, it is, there is no question about it," Williams replied Sunday when asked about the loss and run being filled with emotion. "Ninety percent of the people (media) in this room abandoned ship, 95 percent of our fans did. Nobody knows how hard these kids have worked and you get right here and you would like them to be rewarded even more."
UNC certainly is capable of achieving more, though it hasn't yet proven it can beat a top flight team. The Tar Heels were winless in six games against Miami, Duke and Indiana. They also lost to Butler, but did defeat UNLV, which is probably Carolina's best win.
Villanova (20-13), on the other hand, has beaten Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown. Each of those teams is capable of reaching the Final Four. None of UNC's victims will find their way to Atlanta.
While Villanova is more battle-tested and has proven more, Williams has never lost an opening game in the NCAA Tournament in 22 previous tries, but this may be his most challenging opening game yet.
And even if the Tar Heels win, the prospect of having a big run like the other five winners when these programs have met on this stage isn't likely. But then again, history is a tool used to project the future.