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The Carolinas' ACC teams have a big presence in the Sweet 16

The UNC Tar Heels secure their spot in the Sweet 16 with a win over the Michigan State Spartans.
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The UNC Tar Heels secure their spot in the Sweet 16 with a win over the Michigan State Spartans.

The NCAA Tournament is down to the Sweet 16, with lots of action on tap through this weekend. And it’s a Carolinas-centric March Madness: On the men’s side, four North and South Carolina teams advanced and three North Carolina women’s basketball teams are competing in the tournament.

All the schools are members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has the most Sweet 16 men’s teams of any conference.

Charlotte Observer sportswriter Langston Wertz, Jr. tells WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn that the ACC’s continued success in the tournament is the big story.

Langston Wertz, Jr: All season long, we were told the ACC wasn't a good conference, as recently as February. You know the talking heads debating that only the top two teams in the league, North Carolina and Duke, should make the tournament, and now you're looking at, you know, four teams to advance out of five to the second week.

And that's a pretty amazing feat for a conference that wasn't supposed to be that good, but now (for the Sweet 16) you got Clemson, you have North Carolina, you have Duke, you have NC State. It's a pretty strong showing by a conference that people kind of wrote off as dead.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Well, let's start with UNC Chapel Hill. They are the number one seed, and they're playing Alabama. What do you think their chances are?

Wertz: Well, I think CBS wants to see a North Carolina, Arizona match-up, Gwen. Arizona's number two in that region, and Carolina's number one. Arizona's going to play Clemson, and Carolina's going to play Alabama. I think the thought is they wanted those two teams to play on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four.

Caleb Love, the former Tar Heels, everybody knows left after coach Hubert Davis told him he wasn't sure what his role was going to be. Love famously hit the shot that sent Carolina to the finals and beat Duke in the Final Four a couple of years ago, and probably the most anticipated game in that big rivalry. And I think if a Duke-Carolina matchup did happen, it would create a ratings bonanza for CBS.

The Tar Heels are playing really well. They looked good against Michigan State. They got down early, they rallied and then Michigan State came back, and they put them down again. Carolina has all the pieces going to make a national championship run.

Langston Wertz, Jr., a veteran sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer
Charlotte Observer
Langston Wertz, Jr., a veteran sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer.

Glenn: Let’s talk about Jarin Stevenson. He was recruited by UNC, his mom played for UNC and everybody thought he was going to go there. Now he's with Alabama, so that will be something to be watching, too, when UNC plays Alabama.

Wertz: Absolutely. I mean, Jarin Stevenson was, you know, a five-star recruit out of high school. But the Tar Heels kind of told him he might have to wait a little bit to play because they had such a, you know, experienced team coming back. And now he gets a shot to play against one of the teams that recruited him.

Glenn: So that should be a good game. NC State, they have DJ Burns. He is just taking the country by storm. Everybody is looking at him, and he is a local from Rock Hill.

Wertz: DJ started his career at Tennessee in 2018, didn't play any games and he went to Winthrop after that. He played high school at York Prep. He was a 1,000-point score, 1,000 rebound guy. Then he played at Winthrop for three years. He was the Big South’s freshman of the year at Winthrop. And, you know, he's just had a great career there.

He's been at NC State for the last two years. He was Honorable Mention All-ACC his first year at NC State. This year, he’s the MVP of the tournament. He's a big guy. He's fun, loving, great smile, great family. He plays musical instruments, Gwen. He's a really fun-loving kid and, you know, kind of one of those guys that the tournament makes a star out of. And I'm sure he's enjoying that right now.

Glenn: He's 6’9" and he is a major presence, because watching him when they played UNC, it seemed like he just shut them down. And it seemed like they just didn't know what to do because he was everywhere. He's been doing that, seems like, in every game they've played. And they've won seven straight since the regular season.

Wertz: Yeah, I mean, that's just an amazing run they've had — when they won five games in five days in the ACC tournament. Nobody thought that they would get to the finals, much less beat North Carolina. But, you know, DJ's had a phenomenal season. He's got great hands, great touch, great spin moves with a big body. He’s just hard to guard. Just bang you, bang you, bang and get there. He’s been a big weapon for the Wolfpack, and they’ve shot the ball well around him as well.

Glenn: OK, and Clemson and Duke, they're also in it. What are your thoughts about their chances?

Wertz: I think Clemson is going to have an uphill road playing Arizona. Clemson wants to slow the ball down and work it into their two big guys. They made a nice little run, but I think it probably ends here.

Arizona is a team that could win the national championship. I mean, they have everything. They're loaded. Jaden Bradley, a former high school star at Cannon School in Concord, is one of the point guards there, and he had a phenomenal game last week to get them here.

Glenn: Duke?

Wertz: Duke is going to face the (University of) Houston team that is allowing only about 58 points a game. You know they have a star in Jamal Shead, their point guard. They're not going to be intimidated by the ‘D-u-k-e’ on the front of the jersey, as some teams might be. That's going to be a really tough game.

Glenn: And let's talk about USC, the Gamecocks, Dawn Staley and her team. They are going to be playing Indiana on Friday. What are your thoughts about USC?

Wertz: Well, before I go there, I'm just a little surprised the committee has NC State women playing Stanford on Friday at 7:30 p.m. That's like 30 minutes after the men’s tip-off. That didn't make a lot of sense to me. NC State is 29-6, and #7 Duke beat Ohio State. They're going to play UConn on Saturday.

But Dawn Staley and South Carolina play Indiana on Friday. I expect little trouble. I don't think Dawn Staley is going to be sweating too much until the Final Four. She may not be sweating too much until the championship game.

The key for South Carolina is just once they get there, don’t freeze up, continue to play loose and get the job done. They're the best team in the country. They’re undefeated. They have all the momentum. They have the best coach in the country. It's just a matter of getting it done.

Glenn: Anything else you'd like to add about the tournament or any predictions?

Wertz: No, I mean, I think March Madness has been great on both sides of women and the men's side. I'm looking forward to all these games this weekend. It’s going to be a lot of basketball being played and I think some ACC teams are going to be playing in the Final Four on both sides. So, it should be a great run over the next couple of weeks.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.