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Mar 22, 2024 8:01 am

Top-seeded North Carolina braces for stern test vs. Michigan State

North Carolina Tar Heels

CHARLOTTE — The West Region will produce a second-round game ripe with NCAA Tournament history when North Carolina clashes with Michigan State on Saturday.

The big-time matchup seemed to have everyone’s attention as soon as it was clear that both teams would take care of matters in the opening round.

“The second round has always been real,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “When it gets down to the round of 32, there’s only 32 teams left. So that round is normally going to be two extremely good programs. We’re excited about the challenge of playing against a great Michigan State team.”

Top-seeded North Carolina (28-7) will play about a 2 1/2-hour drive away from its campus in Chapel Hill. Ninth-seeded Michigan State (20-14) has taken a winding road this season, but the Spartans might be tuning up at just the right time.

“I kept saying all year this team was good enough, and I was proving me wrong just because of the mistakes we made,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Why we don’t lock in all the time, again, that falls on me.”

North Carolina recorded a 90-62 win over No. 16 seed Wagner on Thursday, but the Tar Heels know they’ll need more precision to ace this next test.

“We’ve got to do a better job going into Saturday because Michigan State is a really good ballclub,” North Carolina guard RJ Davis said. “We’ve got to come ready to play.”

Michigan State fans turned out in nice numbers for the first-round game against No. 8 seed Mississippi State, but their roar might not be heard as easily in this next game.

“The atmosphere was really good,” Michigan State guard Jaden Akins said. “Our fans showed out, as they always do. I heard a lot of ‘Go green! Go white!’ chants throughout the arena. It’s March, so it’s always going to be a great atmosphere.”

The Tar Heels are 35-2 in NCAA Tournament games in the state of North Carolina. That mark is 13-1 in Charlotte, though there was a 2018 second-round setback to Texas A&M.

Izzo holds an NCAA Tournament-record 17 victories in games as a lower seed, including in Thursday’s matchup, when the Spartans handled Mississippi State 69-51.

Michigan State limited Mississippi State to a season-low point total, but the Tar Heels have more potent weapons. RJ Davis and Armando Bacot have 20 or more points in the same game five times this season.

For much of the season, Michigan State followed North Carolina’s path from last season. Yet the Spartans, the preseason No. 4 team, had enough breakthroughs to reach the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina began the 2022-23 season with the No. 1 national ranking, but it faltered so much that it didn’t even land a bid for the NCAA Tournament.

So this could turn out to be a version of a redemption tour for the Tar Heels.

“It’s win or go home. If you lose, you go home,” said Bacot, a fifth-year player. “It’s just one of those things that’s an even more sense of urgency to just go out there and play my best. All years we’ve worked to get to this point.”

The Tar Heels are 5-0 all-time against Michigan State in NCAA Tournament play, most recently meeting in the 2009 national championship game in Detroit.

The connections between these schools also rises to the administration level. New Michigan State president Kevin Guskiewicz left his role as North Carolina’s chancellor during the winter, so it was a midseason transfer of a different sort.

–Bob Sutton, Field Level Media

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