Men’s Basketball: St. Louis Contrasts Between The Little Guy And The Big Guy

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No need to adjust your television screens Friday night during Ohio’s tilt with number-one seed North Carolina. TBS may be cutting in to the predictable monotony of the Seinfeld/Friends/painfully-close-to-being-funny Tyler Perry sitcom loop they have made a living off to bring fans some March Madness. But the contrast lies on the court – in the match-up. The Tar Heels and Bobcats couldn’t be more different.

North Carolina basketball is hegemonic. Ohio is a face in the crowd. UNC is the United States at the G20 Summit. Ohio is a Greek austerity protestor stumbling on the steps outside. UNC is WalMart. Ohio is post-Martha Stewart Kmart. With the “history and tradition” that Tar Heel coach Roy Williams alluded to in his Thursday press conference, UNC basketball is a continent. Ohio is an isthmus.

North Carolina started its season on an aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Carl Vinson) playing a fellow one seed (Michigan State) in front of Barack Obama. The President delivered a pre-game address, rock band Five for Fighting delivered a post-game concert, and the military personnel in attendance along with a national television audience enjoyed a ridiculously perfect purple sunset.

Ohio opened its season in your standard dorm hall/athletic arena hybrid (the U.S.S. Convocation Center) playing a team that finished the regular season 326th in the RPI rankings (2-27, 0-16 Tennessee-Martin) playing in front of over 9,000 empty hunter green seats. Volunteer public address announcer Lou Horvath introduced the players, and unless Stevie Taylor was singing in the showers in celebration of his first victory, there was no concert. Those streaming the game online likely enjoyed ridiculously imperfect Internet connections.

North Carolina has been to the second weekend of play in the NCAA Tournament 25 times since 1975. Ohio has once – this year. For Ohio, the round of 16 is sweeter than a Tootsie Pop dipped in Equal. For North Carolina, it’s like dipping a flavorless rice cake in tap water. The Bobcats have never danced this far into March. Carolina is still at the punch bowl waiting for its favorite song to start playing.

Carolina's Roy Williams is a coaching legend. John Groce is a rising star. Atlantic Coast public artists are probably already lining up to sculpt his bronze statue. Groce can’t even get the Athens, Ohio sun to agree to bronze his skin. Williams is a college coaching elder, with a crisp comb over employed to organize his full head of white hair. Groce is in his relative infancy, with a set of sideburns employed to divert his full head of no hair. Williams wears a metal watch with a visible circumference. Groce rocks a rubber sports watch.

Groce is intense around the media in St. Louis, shuffling around, meeting new people and helping them get acclimated with his players. Williams is laid back with the media, already knowing most of the national media, who are already acclimated with his players. Groce gave press conference scribes hand cramps Thursday with the length of his opening statements. Williams gave them a cool “we’re happy to be here” before moving on to questioning.

Groce told quirky jokes about his wife to the press. Williams performed stand-up sets – even delivering one about advising Groce on where to take his wife for their anniversary while at a mutual vacation destination. Groce drew smiles. Williams drew howls.

John Groce is simply embracing the spotlight. Roy Williams has mastered it. Groce is engaging, oozing with passion. Williams is charming, glowing with charisma. Groce talks in complete sentences. Williams utters parables. When you hear Groce address a room, you fall in love with his candor. When Williams addresses a room, you think you’re the only person in it.

John Groce came from impressive coaching beginnings. Being on Roy Williams’ staff embodies impressive coaching beginnings. Groce swears by his experience coaching under Ohio State head coach Thad Matta. Williams did his assistant work under college basketball immortal Dean Smith. Groce casually references working with former Ohio State and current Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, Jr. Williams nonchalantly makes reference to coaching former UNC shooting guard and current greatest basketball player of all-time Michael Jordan.

Then, there are the players. NBA scouts keep Chapel Hill hotels in business during basketball season. The same scouts would need a TomTom cross-referencing a Garmin just to find Athens. Friday night in St. Louis, the Tar Heels will have two national college basketball household names sitting out with injuries (with about four on the floor). Before last weekend, Dj Cooper was the only Bobcat whose name was uttered past Nelsonville.

UNC players are heroes. Ohio players are colleagues. During Thursday’s public shoot-around, a crowd of hundreds stood and applauded while the Tar Heels swiveled their hips and performed rigorous calisthenics. During Ohio’s shoot-around, a crowd of dozens held private conversations and played “Angry Birds” as Cooper hit five straight baseline three pointers.

People want to merely meet UNC players. They barely want to see Ohio players. Ohio players willingly signed some of their first autographs to around eight apathetic children after the shooting session. Kids were barreling through each other just to watch the Carolina players sign autographs after theirs. Reporters swarmed UNC guys during an open locker room interview period. Ohio guys were swarmed by drafts from the air conditioning vents.

UNC’s presence will certainly not be missed this weekend in St. Louis. The crowd around the city will be covered in Carolina blue. Ohio will have its fair share of support, but in the wave of powder blue, a tried and true Bobcat fan will be about as noticeable as a decorative fern. The University of North Carolina is sometimes burdened by the national attention that comes with a tournament run. Ohio University is relishing it.

Despite the disparities, Roy Williams insists one thing will level the playing field tomorrow night in St. Louis.

“I’m thinking…the game’s still going to start 0-0. That’s my thought process.”