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Tar Heel pride is a national phenomenon

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published November 24. 2013 4:00AM

Mohegan - It is 538 miles from the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C., to Neon Uncasville, where the Carolina Tar Heels spent their Saturday afternoon. That's the Tar Heels and a good 4,000 of their fans, who turned Mohegan Sun Arena into a roomful of blue for Carolina's 82-72 win over Richmond, one of four games here in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament.

They're great fans, the Tar Heel faithful are, with all of the loyalty and none of the pretentiousness. And they pay attention. Like how one of the loudest cheers came from nowhere in the second half when Carolina's J.P. Tokoto made a free throw.

Turns out the poor kid shot 4-for-16 from the foul line in the loss last week to Belmont.

They rocked their anthems, too, like when half the arena yells "TAR!" and the other half yells, "HEELS!" This was a home game for Carolina except the Carolinians were 538 miles from home.

It was at some point during the game when I asked myself:

And we think Connecticut is some kind of basketball state?

Please.

This is the minor leagues.

We're not Carolina.

Never will be.

Now calm down. Not suggesting the UConn Huskies are irrelevant, not with the three national championship banners hanging a few miles up the road. Straight up: What Jim Calhoun wrought and what Kevin Ollie continues owns a special place in college basketball lore and legend.

But Carolina is a national brand.

Think about it this way: If UConn played in a tournament at, say, a spiffy casino 538 miles away on a late November weekend, would 4,000 fans show up? Would 1,000? Note: A 538-mile trip from Storrs is approximately Youngstown, Ohio, which is no more of a remote outpost, really, than Uncasville, Conn.

Ah, perspective. That old thing. Perhaps we could get some here, next time a few loonies think that because State U has won some games over the years that it somehow belongs in the same conversation as Kentucky or Carolina. Decaf, people.

And you can text, tweet or email the next time the Heels or another Gatsby play a home game with as many empty seats as we often see in the XL Center. Example: The University of Hartford folks were marveling Saturday at how Louisville filled the KFC Yum! Center for the Louisville-Hartford game last week. Think UConn-Hartford would fill the XL Center halfway?

You are thinking: What is the genesis of this rant? Just take to Twitter the night of a UConn men's basketball game. You want provincialism? Meet the Connecticut Twitterati, an assemblage of fans whose provincialism would be amusing if it weren't so alarming.

I suspect that the encouraging start to basketball season has caused these people to beat their chests with more verve, particularly after all the frustration over conference realignment and this scourge of a football season.

But does that excuse their penchant to be haughty in victory, malicious in defeat and generally crude?

OK. So all fan bases have their factions whose liquor cabinets are better stocked than their bookshelves. But at least the Carolina faithful can't be accused of acting like new money. That's because they're old money.

I met Carolina fans from as far south as Georgia and west as Kansas here Saturday. Nice people. Awed a bit by the casino property. As one man from Asheville, N.C., said, "y'all really live near here? I'd be broke with no liver."

The roars for the Heels weren't lost on the players and coaches, even if they admit that virtually every road game is dotted with Carolina blue.

"Tar Heel Nation," Brice Johnson said after his 24 points and 12 rebounds, "is the best. And all over the place."

Coach Roy Williams: "We don't get a chance to come here very often. Some people stopped me in the hotel and said they were looking forward to this weekend since it came out last year. We have a tremendous number of alums."

Carolina plays Louisville today at America's Most Beloved Arena. Go see for yourself.

Lots of Carolina blue in the house. Great to see and hear. The old money of college basketball.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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