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March 22, 2012Top-seeded North Carolina must defeat 13th-seeded Ohio on Friday at 7:47 p.m. (EDT) at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis to remain in the hunt for a national championship in men's basketball.
The massive sports complex hosted the game in which Coach Roy Williams' won his first national championship in 2005, a 75-70 victory against then No. 1-ranked Illinois.
Assuming the Tar Heels succeed on Friday against the Bobcats, they will then turn around and attempt to defeat either Kansas or N.C. State on Sunday to earn trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.
The territory that lay ahead, however, is as muddied as the mighty Mississippi, which weaves through St. Louis and New Orleans. So why generate any greater sense of confusion?
The reason is the loss of point guard Kendall Marshall, who broke his right in Sunday's game against Creighton and had surgery on Monday morning. His status is uncertain.
"It's mindboggling, the thought processes right now," Williams said. "I don't feel there is any pressure taken off, but the pressure I put on myself is what has driven me all the time anyway. I think we can still win the whole blessed thing, but it doesn't matter.
"We have to win on Friday. That is what I have been focusing on. I don't think I'm looking at the big picture as much as I'm looking at Friday. We have to play well Friday. My job is to convince [the Tar Heels that] we can win Friday. That is the only thing I am focusing on."
And that, of course, is as it should be.
As the Tar Heels boarded buses bound for the airport Wednesday afternoon at the Smith Center, the team was given a send-off by a large number of UNC fans.
Marshall was in good spirits, wearing a large brace over his right wrist, replacing the cast he had worn for a couple of days coming off Monday's surgery, in which a cannulated screw was placed in Marshall's wrist to set the broken scaphoid suffered against Creighton Sunday afternoon in Greensboro.
The looming question for the Tar Heels as they travel West is how Williams will replace Marshall, who is likely not going to play against the Bobcats?
"I hope they don't rely on old Roy because I'm not good enough," Williams said. "They have to help me. Ask the Indianapolis Colts how it feels to be without [Peyton] Manning.
"The previous year they were in the playoffs, and this year they played so well they get the first draft pick."
Tyler Zeller will be a first-round draft pick himself, only his name will be called in the National Basketball Association's annual skimming of the U.S. college cream of the crop, and other worldwide prospects.
But for now, Zeller is a senior earning a degree in business administration. He is also the reigning ACC player of the year. He understands full well how difficult the challenge will be to replace a key player at a critical position at this time of the season.
Yet Zeller and fellow senior Justin Watts have seen enough unforeseen circumstances in their time to know the true goal is simply to overcome in anyway possible.
"We just watched a little ESPN segment, and we were joking about it," Zeller said earlier in the week. "They basically said we are coming back to Chapel Hill instead of coming back to New Orleans. Obviously we want to go to New Orleans, and we'll give it our best effort. It will be interesting to see what happens."
ESPN got it at least half right. Win or lose, the Tar Heels will return home after the Midwest Regional. The unknown is whether UNC will travel to New Orleans for the Final Four and a chance to win the national championship.
The Wildcats ended UNC's season last year with a 76-69 victory in a regional final.
Zeller is a smart young man, as proven by his status as the all-academic player of the year in men's basketball. He said the players at North Carolina have learned a great deal about pressing forward in difficult circumstances.
"The past two years have been tough," Zeller said. "We lost the Wear twins, Larry [Drew], Will [Graves]. We had injuries last year. We've had all the injuries this year. Fortunately we're starting to get used to it. We lost somebody else. We have to pick each other up. We have to bond together and make the best of what we have.
"We have a great group of guys. I think we're very talented. We can still win. We just have to be able to find a way to do it. We have to keep looking at what we have, not what we're losing."
What Carolina has first off is backup point guard Stilman White of Wilmington, who has improved as the season has progressed.
"He's done really well," Williams said. "We haven't put him out there for long extended periods of time, and that is something we're going to have to do now and see how he reacts to that. In the short periods we have put him out there, he has done very well."
Watts has played every position on the court during his career at Carolina. Oddly enough, being a combo guard coming out of high school he had played the least amount at point guard, but when he got an opportunity at the ACC Tournament, he played well.
"Justin is a calm leader that people don't see," sophomore Harrison Barnes said. "He's a senior. He's been through it. He can run the offense, and he does a good job at it."
So here are the facts as UNC prepares for Friday.
The Tar Heels will still start four potential future NBA players. They have a rotation of talented big men who can control the lane on defense and rebound as well as any team in the nation.
They just may not have their butter to spread the ball around.
"I just don't see my team lying down and going belly-up," Williams said. "I just don't see that happening.
"We're going to be fired up," Williams said. "We're going to be enthused. We're going to be as ready as we can possibly be."