WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- They have won 56 games in the NCAA tournament, more than any other school except UCLA, which dominated college basketball with only two interruptions from 1964 to 1975.
The first and second rounds of the East Regional are an hour's drive from their home in Chapel Hill, East
where they practiced at the Smith Center last night at a time corresponding with tonight's 10:20 tip-off.
But there are still some clouds above the North Carolina Tar Heels, the region's top seed and the marquee name in the field of eight at Joel Memorial Coliseum.
A bit of the Tar Heels' luster was tarnished Sunday when Georgia Tech outshot them, 77-75, to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and jolt them out of the nation's No. 1 ranking.
There remains a considerable question about the availability of point guard Derrick Phelps, who missed the ACC final with a badly bruised sacrum (a bone at the lower end of the spine).
Coach Dean Smith said Phelps "couldn't sprint" yesterday, "and I'm sure he won't be able to practice. It looks doubtful that he'll play either." The absence of Phelps probably won't make much difference tonight against East Carolina, the No. 16 seed and the first team with a losing record (13-16) in seven years to play in the tournament.
That tabulation didn't prevent Smith from doing his best buildup of the Pirates yesterday. He said things such as:
"I'm very much impressed with East Carolina's quickness throughout the lineup . . . ."
"Eddie Payne [Pirates coach and former Wake Forest star] has done a marvelous job of bringing them on lately."
East Carolina arrived here by virtue of three upsets in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament after going 4-10 in the regular season. Before that, the Pirates had lost eight of their previous 12 games.
So the chances of an upset -- even with Phelps sidelined -- are about the same as a blizzard at the equator. Still, North Carolina could be staring at trouble with the survivor of the Purdue-Rhode Island matchup next.
Another key Tar Heel, Brian Reese, was in New York yesterday after his grandmother died. He is expected to play tonight, but the funeral is Saturday when North Carolina will face a much tougher challenge.
Reese had 56 points in three ACC tournament games, including 24 against the Yellow Jackets when he almost single-handedly kept his team in the game.
Three-point specialist Donald Williams will start with Henrik Rodl in the Tar Heels backcourt.
"Derrick wanted to play so bad because he's such a competitor," Williams said. "But I think the guys can go out and bond together so we can give him a chance to play again."
"We've been through injuries in March before, and we've handled it," Smith said. "We'd rather have them happen in January and take time to adjust, but the injury to Derrick has happened now. We can deal with it."
The most competitive game, according to the seeding process, should be Purdue (18-9), with its All-Big Ten sophomore forward Glenn Robinson, against Rhode Island (18-10) of the Atlantic-10.
The last time the Rams were in this state, they shocked Missouri and then-fourth ranked Syracuse at Chapel Hill in the 1987-88 tournament. Under Tom Penders, they advanced to the East Regional semifinals at the Meadowlands and nearly stunned Duke in a 73-72 game.
"The game clearly will be a contrast in tempos," Rhode Island coach Al Skinner said. "We like to play quick, and they like to slow it down a little bit. It's going to be hard to up-tempo a team that handles the ball so well."
Skinner said he will approach Robinson (the Big Ten's top scorer at 25.5 ppg) with various defenses. "We're just going to try to make it hard for him."
Robinson and Purdue coach Gene Keady said the team is happy to be somewhere other than West Lafayette, Ind.
"We're happy to be on the road," Keady said. "We really don't play with as much smartness at home. . . . We shoot the ball too quick."
"When we're on the road, we have our minds on playing ball," Robinson said.
Arkansas will send a young unit against Patriot League champion Holy Cross, and St. John's will try to boost the prestige of the Big East, against Texas Tech in the other games.