SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- North Carolina sweated out its jitters and got a feel for this National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament on Friday night in its 35-point rout of Northeastern in the Carrier Dome.
When coach Dean Smith said when he heard the tournament brackets announced, he immediately looked at the Tar Heels' second-round game and felt a knot in his stomach. Nothing comes easily this time of year, but the Wildcats, who brought Princeton's sparkling season to a premature close late Friday, lurk in the Tar Heels' path.
While many people are ready to pencil the Tar Heels (26-5) into the Final Four in Indianapolis now that the upper half of the East Regional bracket seems to have crumbled around them, Villanova is more dangerous than its lackluster record appears.
The Wildcats (17-14) probably wouldn't have made the NCAA field had they not beaten Syracuse in the Big East tournament. But through this season, Villanova beat the Orangemen twice and also took down Louisiana State, Wake Forest, Georgetown and St. John's.
"It's really scary," Smith said Friday night. It's the kind of game, he said, "that goes to the last couple of minutes, and then you see what happens."
Smith also reached back to last season, when the Tar Heels were struggling through a difficult year. They entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed, just as Villanova is this year, then upset top seed Oklahoma to reach the Sweet 16 again.
"We'll talk about the Final Four all we want, but we're not there yet," said North Carolina's Rick Fox. "We're aware [of what's happening], because it's around us on television all day. But I've been in tournament situations where teams didn't get a chance to play the teams they were supposed to play. We've heard Dick Vitale screaming to load the bus for Indianapolis. We're just glad he's behind us."
North Carolina's immediate focus is Villanova, and the Wildcats present an interesting twist because they, unlike Northeastern and most of the other teams North Carolina faced through the season, like to slow the tempo. They don't take it to the Princeton extreme, but they are deliberate.
"That style is difficult to play against," Smith said, adding, "We can walk as well as run."
Against Princeton on Friday, Villanova played what coach Rollie Massimino called "one of the best games ever played in the history of Villanova" in winning, 50-48. It won't be that slow against the Tar Heels, but it's not likely to get into a running game unless North Carolina's defense gets a quick jump on the Wildcats and forces them out of their tempo.
"It's trying to your patience," Fox said. "We're a good defensive team, but if you're not patient defensively when a team is trying to get really good shots, you can get in trouble. You've got to be careful."