In North Carolina, March Madness is more like a holiday season than a series of basketball playoffs.
It means pep rallies and unique traditions: Some fans wear the same pants for every game, or have mascot-patterned shoelaces they reserve for this time of year.
For many in Chapel Hill it means travel and days off from the University of North Carolina, which plays in the Final Four semi-final against Utah tomorrow. Some professors have cancelled classes as far ahead as Tuesday. Should UNC win Saturday, they'll play in the NCAA championship Monday night.
"I was pretty much reared a Tar Heel," says Christopher Scott, a UNC senior who grew up 3-1/2 hours east of Chapel Hill. "I guess every family in North Carolina just picks a team. You're a Duke family or a [N.C.] State family or a Carolina family. I don't know why that is."
In Carolina's case, the phenomenon isn't new. UNC has been a basketball powerhouse for decades, winning three NCAA titles and appearing in the Final Four more often than any other school. By the time the school's record-breaking head coach Dean Smith stepped down last fall, he and the program were legendary. This year is no different. The Heels were ranked the top team, and new coach Bill Guthridge (an assistant for 30 years) broke the record for most wins for a new coach.
All this has UNC bubbling with team spirit. "I've watched every game," says university junior Tiffany Arnold. "I would have missed some because of work, but we pulled the TV around so we could see it."
Supportive signs saying "Way to Go Heels" and "Let's Go All the Way" dot the landscape. Toilet-paper remnants from the last victory celebration still dangle from trees on Franklin Street, which borders the campus. Half a dozen different designs of Final Four shirts have been on sale all week.
Off-campus fans are even beginning to creep across UNC's yards in hope of seeing a player. They appear, with cameras and blue basketballs for autographs, around noon, when team members might be spotted in front of the library. "I've got my family calling me from New York," says freshman Tasha Willoughby. "Everybody wants to know what are the players like."
As for Ms. Willoughby and her friends, player-spotting is not a rare occurrence. "There goes Twan," says Katisha Freeman, waving to Antawn Jamison, considered the best college player in the country.
If the Tar Heels do go the distance, fans are ready for the celebratory madness that will erupt on Franklin Street: bonfires, more toilet paper, and thousands of revelers crowding the thoroughfare.
But as thrilled as everyone is, folks say being a Carolina fan means being there for your team if they lose, too. "A Tar Heel fan stays true to the end, good or bad," says Ms. Freeman.