The road to the Final Four turned into an inviting stretch of open interstate for North Carolina last weekend.
Knowing a good thing when they see it, the Tar Heels didn't gawk. They just put the pedal to the metal.
Next stop: Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands, where Dean Smith will participate in his 11th consecutive "Sweet 16" party.
After two rounds of NCAA tournament play, the Tar Heels (27-5) are suddenly traveling the path of least resistance in the upset-depleted East Regional.
By the end of the first round Friday, the East's second, fourth and fifth seeds -- Syracuse, UCLA, Mississippi State -- all made hasty retreats. In the meantime, top-seeded Carolina was spoon-fed two teams that lost 24 games between them this season. The Tar Heels hammered Northeastern by 35, then trashed Villanova by 15.
In the East Regional semifinals next Friday, Carolina gets 12th seed Eastern Michigan (26-6), followed on Sunday by the winner of third-seeded Oklahoma State and 10th-seeded Temple.
If Carolina doesn't make the Final Four off that pairing, the folks in Chapel Hill may want to think about renaming the Dean Dome.
All four of the NCAA's top seeds made it to the round of 16 over the weekend, but none had it quite as easy as Carolina.
In the Southeast, Arkansas (33-3) won a first-round yawner over Georgia State by 41, but had to squeak past second-round opponent Arizona State, 97-90.
In the West, everybody's favorite, Nevada-Las Vegas, cruised past Montana by 34, then sweated out Georgetown's twin towers before claiming a 62-54 win.
And in the Midwest, Ohio State followed up a shaky outing against Towson State (97-86) with a shaky outing against Georgia Tech (65-61). The Buckeyes (27-3) are scaring no one.
Ironically, after the opening-round run of upsets, the second round of the tournament ran remarkably to form. The higher-seeded team won every matchup in round two, and there were no upsets of any kind in the Southeast.
If Carolina has the most direct route to Indianapolis and the Final Four, then Arkansas (33-3) would seem to have the toughest road out of the Southeast.
The Razorbacks play Alabama (23-9) at Charlotte on Thursday. After Wake Forest fell to Alabama 96-88 yesterday, Deacons coach Dave Odom offered this appraisal of Wimp Sanderson's Tide: "His team is playing at a level where it can beat anybody in this country, and I don't exclude UNLV."
If the Hogs survive Bama, they get the winner of Indiana-Kansas.
The first hint that UNLV might not be invincible surfaced yesterday when Georgetown pressed the Runnin' Rebels into the final two minutes before surrendering.
The Hoyas got as close as four points with nine minutes left. They were within five with 2:22 to go when Alonzo Mourning fouled out. That ended the threat.
To its credit, UNLV (32-0) won largely without center George Ackles, who sprained his left ankle against Montana. Ackles started, but his stand-in, Elmer Spencer, gave a yeoman's effort and blocked six shots.
The eight-point differential was the Rebels' second-closest game the season, after a seven-point win over Arkansas.
Next for UNLV is Utah, which knocked off Michigan State in two overtimes, 85-84. The Utes are 30-3 with a suspect schedule out of the Western Athletic Conference.
UNLV's bigger challenge should come against the winner of Seton Hall-Arizona. Seton Hall (24-8) beat Pepperdine by 20 and Creighton by 12. The Pirates have won 11 of their last 12 games. Not insignificant is the resurgent play of sophomore guard Terry Dehere, who broke out of a shooting slump (8-for-35 in the Big East tournament) to go 21-for-35 at Tucson, Ariz., and score 52 points in two games.
Arizona (28-6) wasn't really tested by either St. Francis or BYU, winning by 13 and 15. Its big front line could give UNLV fits.
In the Midwest, Ohio State's grip on its top seed looks tenuous at best. The Buckeyes played sporadically against both Towson and Tech in friendly Dayton.
St. John's, an 84-76 winner over Texas, gets the next shot at Ohio State. But the team with the best chance of emerging from the Midwest might be Duke (28-7).
The Blue Devils beat Northeast Louisiana by 29 and Iowa by 15 at Minneapolis to reach the Sweet 16 for the sixth straight season.
Their road runs through the Pontiac Silverdome, where next Friday they face Connecticut in a rematch of last year's East Regional final. Duke beat the Huskies in that game on a last-second shot by Christian Laettner.