As Lipscomb held its first ever practice at the NCAA Tournament, a chant of "Tar! Heels!" rang through the arena in Charlotte. This is Tar Heel country and the Bisons can't escape the sea of Carolina blue headed into Friday's opening round matchup.
In Nashville, however, the support for the Bisons is overwhelming. Lipscomb is just two teams from the state of Tennessee in the tournament.
Lipscomb, winner of the Atlantic Sun tournament, earned an automatic berth, a No. 15 seed—and a date with second-seeded North Carolina on Friday. “All eyes in Nashville are on us. That’s a great feeling to have, that we are kind of the center of attention right now,” junior center Rob Marberry said Thursday.
The Bisons have been on a high since they beat Florida Gulf Coast to win their conference title. When the team returned to Nashville after the victory, sophomore guard Michael Buckland said there were more than 500 fans waiting for the team in the pouring rain.
Even with all the support, taking on Carolina is still a major challenge.
“It’s daunting because they’re really good.” said Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander. “They always are and this is just ‘Show up and play another game’ for them. This is the first time for us. But our message to [our players] will be, ‘We get to the first media timeout, I promise you, it will feel like every other game you’ve ever played.’”
This year, Lipscomb faced four tournament teams: Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Purdue—but lost all by double digits. Alexander felt the Bisons played well in a 98–66 loss at Purdue in late December.
“We’ll use those experiences to help us here,” Alexander said. “The final margin was 30 or something, but I felt like we played well for the first 25 or 30 minutes. When we left the locker room that day and my message to them was ‘That is the [type of] team you are going to see in the NCAA Tournament.’
“You need to know right now that when you walk on the floor, you can compete and you can expect to win, even though we know it will be very difficult.”
There have been eight instances of a No. 15 seed beating a No. 2 seed, most recently Middle Tennessee beating Michigan State in 2016.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams recognized that what little his team has seen of the Bisons poses potential challenges. “We got to give them some props with their ability to shoot the ball, to score, the pace they play at,” Williams said.
If Thursday’s practice was any indication, North Carolina fans will make it difficult for Lipscomb to hear themselves over the crowd. Lipscomb’s shootaround was dominated by Carolina chants, and the Tar Heels received a rousing ovation when they took the floor.
“It puts the odds more against us knowing there’s going to be a lot of Carolina Blue out there in the stands,” said guard Michael Buckland. “At the same time, we’re going to have our people and the people that care about us most in the stands. That’s all we need.”
Alexander said his team will have to be close to perfect to win its NCAA debut.
“The key is, we have to be better than them for 40 minutes. One time. That’s it. One time for 40 minutes, that’s how we’ll approach it.”
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