EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eddie Sutton spoke for NCAA tournament underdogs everywhere yesterday when he assessed the seeming lock North Carolina has in the upset-depleted East Regional.
The Oklahoma State coach conceded the favorite's role to Carolina in any East matchup this weekend. But he stopped far short of awarding the fourth-ranked Tar Heels a pass to the Final Four.
"When you have a one-game shot, anything can happen," Sutton said. "If Temple, Eastern Michigan and our club had to play North Carolina in a series, North Carolina is going to win.
"But that doesn't mean Temple, Eastern Michigan or our club can't beat them."
Eastern Michigan (26-6) gets the first shot at the Tar Heels (27-5) in the East semifinals tonight (7:30, Ch. 11) at the Brendan Byrne Arena.
In the second game, Oklahoma State (24-7) and Temple (23-9) will try to position themselves for a prospective crack at top-seeded North Carolina in Sunday's regional championship game.
TC Dean Smith chuckled at the notion that his Tar Heels are virtually assured of a Final Four berth.
"I get a kick out of somebody saying it's ours to lose," Smith said. "Hey, we're happy to be here, to be this far. A lot of teams aren't [here]. Eastern Michigan must be good. Mississippi State is co-champion in the Southeastern Conference and it was beaten by 20 [by Eastern Michigan]."
Still, the idea of playing a heavy underdog (the Heels are favored by 13 1/2 points) from a low-profile conference (the Mid-American) is a bit unsettling to Smith.
"In many ways, if our players weren't as intelligent as I think they are, it would be much better playing UCLA," he said of the Bruins, a first-round casualty in the East. "You know, the name. But I hope we're playing the course and not the opponent."
Smith's golfing analogy aside, there is ample reason to believe the Tar Heels are peaking at precisely the right time and place. They have won five in a row and 12 of their last 13.
In its last three games, Carolina drubbed Duke by 22, throttled Northeastern by 35, and jolted Villanova by a mere 15. That's an average spread of 24 points for the ACC championship game and two NCAA tournament games.
And in the last 13 games, Carolina opponents have shot a meager 40 percent from the field.
"A lot of people expect us to win," point guard King Rice said, "but we realize it has to happen on the floor. We need to play our best basketball of the season . . . If we don't play a good game, we might be in trouble."
Rice might have his hands full playing against Eastern Michigan's Lorenzo Neely (11.9 points, 4.4 assists per game). Smith allowed that Neely was good enough to play in the ACC with the likes of Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson and North Carolina State's Chris Corchiani.
For his part, Neely says he won't be in awe of Carolina. "I don't have time to be intimidated," he said. "I look at it more as an honor."
Whether Eastern Michigan can stay with Carolina's bigger, deeper and more talented club is the more pressing question. The Hurons, with the second-longest win streak (11) in the NCAA after Nevada-Las Vegas, have five players averaging double figures, but get little point production from their bench.
Said forward Carl Thomas, "Our bench is underrated. We have the endurance to withstand all the substitution patterns they have."
Coach Ben Braun endorsed that idea. "We have faith in the people we bring off the bench," he said. "This team is about players accepting their roles. I think North Carolina has the same type of thing, where they bring people off in waves.
"When you go to the bench, you want to get something. We get that. We have a very capable bench and it goes deeper than a lot of people think it does."
Eastern Michigan's big gun is 6-foot-7 Marcus Kennedy, a senior transfer from Division II Ferris State who averages 20 points and eight rebounds.
"You have to give him some attention," Smith said. "A guy who shoots 70 percent [actually 68] from the floor, you don't want to take many shots."
Kennedy has led Eastern Michigan in scoring in 14 of the last 15 games, including tournament victories over Mississippi State and Penn State.
Even if the 12th-seeded Hurons are the lowest seed still alive in the tournament, the win over Mississippi State told Smith they are not to be dismissed lightly.
"Don't make any mistake, they're a good team," he said. "Go ask Eddie Fogler [Vanderbilt coach and a Smith protege]. He told me Mississippi State would win that game."