MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Gonzaga senior guard Micah Downs grew up in the West, but he dreamed of playing for North Carolina.
“I don’t really talk about it much, but North Carolina was my favorite team when I was a kid,” he said. “They were like the only major school that didn’t send me a letter. I still root for them when we’re not playing them, but it’s going to be cool to play against them.”
As a Chicago native, GU guard Jeremy Pargo knew what words were coming before every Chicago Bulls game for years. “At 6-6, from North Carolina…” said Pargo, imitating Bulls P.A. announcer Ray Clay’s distinguished introduction of Michael Jordan. “I mean you had no choice but to listen to it when you lived in Chicago. I thought I was going to be 6-6 and go to North Carolina.”
Pargo ended up being 6-foot-2 and a three-year starter for the Bulldogs, who take on North Carolina, one of college basketball’s most storied programs, tonight in the South Regional semifinals at FedExForum.
But it isn’t North Carolina’s 41 NCAA tournament appearances, the NCAA-record 23 trips to the Sweet 16 or the four NCAA titles that worry fourth-seeded Gonzaga (28-5). It isn’t even the Tar Heels’ current collection of eight McDonald’s All-Americans.
It’s the fact that the top-seeded Tar Heels (30-4) are a deep, talented team with a devastating transition game, a relentless four-time All-American center in Tyler Hansbrough, dogged rebounders and dangerous shooters on the wings.
“They play really fast, they have a lot of offensive weapons and they really get after it on defense,” GU junior guard Matt Bouldin said. “They’ve been around that No. 1 ranking all year.”
North Carolina was ranked No. 1 for the first eight weeks and had national pundits debating the possibility of an undefeated season. A January loss to Boston College ended UNC’s chances at an unblemished record.
The biggest question surrounding UNC’s program has been the health of speedy point guard Ty Lawson, who has been battling a sore toe for weeks.
“I went up to him (Thursday) morning and said, “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, how is it?’ He said, ‘About a 6.’ ” Williams said. “I said, ‘How was it before the LSU game (Saturday)?’ He said, ‘About an 8.’ That’s not encouraging to me.”
Still, Lawson played through pain last Saturday and delivered 23 points. One of GU’s primary goals is to curb the Tar Heels’ running game, and that means keeping Lawson in first gear. The Bulldogs hope their point guard and one of their forwards can slow Lawson in the backcourt while Gonzaga’s wings limit his options for down-court passes.
“They got about 77 entities that keep you up at night, but that’s probably 1 or 1A,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Another concern: Keeping the Tar Heels off the boards. They’re plus-7 in rebounding margin and typically send four to the offensive glass. Gonzaga will probably have guard Matt Bouldin defend 6-foot-6 Danny Green to try to limit one of UNC’s better offensive rebounders.
Finally, Gonzaga has no qualms about running with the Tar Heels, but it can’t afford many ill-advised shots. North Carolina routinely turns those into points at the other end.
“They’re a fast team that likes to get up and down the floor and pressure the ball,” sophomore forward Austin Daye said. “We do the same things, so I think there’s going to be a lot of points scored and there’ll be a lot of runs.
“When you run with them, you have to be able to make smart decisions with our shot selection and our passing. That’ll be the key to the game.”
Tonight’s winner advances to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of the Oklahoma-Syracuse game.
Gonzaga doesn’t figure to be awestruck by facing UNC or the setting.
The Bulldogs have played a rugged non-conference schedule for years against the top teams in college basketball.
“We’re prepared,” sophomore Steven Gray said. “That’s a credit to our coaches for scheduling games like this during the season.”
Another opportunity comes tonight against a marquee opponent.
“Gonzaga doesn’t get all the All-Americans and super high recruits, but we get guys that play hard and play the game right and give everything they got,” Downs said. “Gonzaga just does that and we’re able to compete with these big-time players and schools.
“It’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be one of the best games of the tournament so far.”