Each team comes to Philadelphia carrying some baggage.

For North Carolina, it's making its first final four appearance since 1993.


For Loyola Maryland, it's returning to championship weekend for the first time since winning the title in 2012.

For Brown, owners of the high-flying offense, it's being in the semifinals for the first time since the mid-1990s.

And Maryland? The Terps have been here before, making their fifth final four stop in six years. But getting here is not the same as winning a title — Maryland hasn't won the championship since 1975.

So each team has something to prove beginning Saturday. Here's what to look for:

North Carolina vs. Loyola Maryland, noon, ESPN2

The Tar Heels rode an emotional wave to a resounding quarterfinal victory over Notre Dame. The win snapped an 0-8 streak in that round, and Carolina makes its first championship weekend appearance since 1993. Its last title team — in 1991 — will be honored at halftime on Memorial Day, marking its 25th anniversary. Is this 10-6 squad just happy to be in Philadelphia? Has it reached its goal? Or will the Tar Heels be able to hit the reset button and deliver another peak performance against Loyola?

The Greyhounds' success this spring comes in the wake of a subpar 7-8 record in 2015.

Hoping to spur a turnaround, coach Charley Toomey had his team read and produce reports on the book "Hard Hat" by John Gordon.

"It took us a down year to get going again," Toomey said. "The book has a different meaning to all the players, but it focuses on being a great teammate. We hand out a hard hat after every practice to the most deserving player that day. We have the hard hat on our sidelines for games."

Hard-hatted Loyola has won 10 straight games and benefited from the emergence of freshman Patrick Spencer, who has 82 points. What separates Spencer from the pack? First, his poise and composure. The rookie is not overwhelmed by anything. He plays with a certain Zen attitude — nothings bothers him.

"His poise is a combination of his great basketball skills — having the ball in his hands and making decisions," said Bob Shriver, his high school coach at Boys' Latin. "Patrick plays pickup hoops in the offseason in Annapolis with some high-level players and tough guys."

Spencer is both proactive and reactive with the ball in his stick. He can initiate to create or sit back and decipher the defense. His ability to play with both hands is notable. As you watch on Saturday, try to decipher whether his strong hand is the left or the right.

North Carolina will counter with defenders Austin Pifani or Jack Rowlett, most likely Pifani. Don't be surprised to see the 'Heels "take away X" — that is, press out and shut Spencer off when the ball is on the wings to prevent him from handling it. Defensive coordinator Chris Feifs also has to decide what their reaction will be to Spencer's dodges. Do they double-team early? Or leave Pifani on an island? They could choose to zone it up anytime Spencer has the ball behind the cage.

"We have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C for Pat Spencer," said North Carolina coach Joe Breschi. "All are viable options within the framework of our base defense."


Stephen Kelly provides the 'Heels with an edge in the faceoff battle. Kelly has been the catalyst for this offense. He's a demon on loose balls that he converts into possessions and goals. His play is directly linked to the Tar Heels' momentum.

UNC has four separate two-game win streaks this year but it has not won three straight during an up-and-down season that has somehow found its way to Philadelphia. If North Carolina can't turn the page from last week's emotional victory, Loyola will close the chapter on its storybook season.

Brown vs. Maryland, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2

The Terps are familiar with the schedule, rigors and intricacies of championship week. Brown is new to the party. What are the expectations? This is the Bears' first semifinal appearance in 22 years.

The message is to keep moving forward. "Let's not be too content with what we have done," said Brown coach Lars Tiffany. "We view this as a continued race to improve, and for us to continue to have the most fun."

It has been big-time fun in Providence this season. Brown has the No. 1 scoring offense in the country and led the country in five offensive categories. Its hectic style of play has thrilled fans. While other teams are pulling the ball out and substituting, the Bears are always in attack mode, putting pressure on the opponent by scoring in transition, during the substitution phase and off the ensuing faceoff.

Faceoffs will be the most critical aspect of this game. Brown specialist Will Gural is sensational at putting the ball out in front and carrying into the zone for a four-on-three fast break. The Bears use two long poles on the wings (usually Larken Kemp, Alec Tulett or Jake Miller) to make opponents' lives miserable on ground balls but also are threats to score points in a quick-strike offense. Brown scores a ton of goals within 15 seconds of a faceoff, save or opponent turnover.

"We have spent the majority of our practice week working on faceoffs and not giving up transition off the faceoff," Maryland coach John Tillman said.

Dylan Molloy, the Bears' best player and the front-runner for the Tewaaraton Award was injured in the first round against Johns Hopkins. He did not play last week in Brown's 11-10 win over Navy. Tiffany has indicated that Molloy is "highly unlikely" to play against Maryland. Without Molloy, Brown's settled sets aren't as scary. Bailey Tills was the quarterback in the win over Navy. Henry Blynn is a dangerous shooter. Kylor Bellistri plays well without the ball. Molloy was able to create double teams and mayhem with his 220-pound bulldozer mentality. That will be missed.

"We will prepare for three scenarios," Tillman said. "We have to be ready for a healthy Molloy, no Molloy and a version of Molloy that may not be 100 percent."

The patient Terps will test Brown's defensive discipline. "Maintaining a razor-sharp focus for over a minute each defensive possession is critical," said Tiffany, a Brown alum who's known for his calm, yet decisive approach.

Maryland's senior class separates itself from the other three remaining teams. The roster is balanced and without obvious flaws.

"We have no superstars, just a lot of very good players," Tillman said. "Most importantly, though, they are all-in."

In my eyes, Matt Rambo, Bryan Cole, Isaiah Davis-Allen and goalie Kyle Bernlohr are more than just very good players. They are dominant at their positions. Terps role players all contribute. This group is unified, talented, motivated and well-coached. And you can't put a price tag on big-game experience.

Maryland, winners of 15 consecutive games, would be shrewd to counterattack Brown's transition with some of its own. It always makes sense to run on a runner.


"We will push the opportunities without being reckless," Tiillman said "If we get chances, we are going to test the waters."

Maryland is trying to silence of echoes of 41 years of near misses.

"We have to enjoy this week," Tillman said. "It's about putting in the preparation, staying true to our identity, and then having fun. If you're tight going into this thing, you're not going to play well. If you're not focused, you won't play well either. Finding that balance is crucial."

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun