Nothing could be finer than to be a Ute fan in Carolina.

This week, anyway.Normally, being a University of Utah basketball fan in Atlantic Coast Conference country is a trying experience.

North Carolinians are convinced they invented basketball and created the world's greatest hoopster, Michael Jordan. Many ACC supporters deny that other college basketball conferences even exist.

And any University of North Carolina fan knows the Earth rotates on its axis thanks to legendary UNC coach Dean Smith, who remains a demigod in retirement.

"They'll kill each other" over basketball, said Mary Lameka, a 1989 Utah graduate who has survived in Chapel Hill for nine years. "There is such a rivalry here between Duke and North Carolina it's ridiculous. People here are tribal. Some will refuse to speak to each other if they're wearing (the other team's) shirt."

In a land where a hangnail on the non-shooting hand of a backup small forward for Wake Forest is big news, a Utah fan could starve from lack of information. Two time zones away, sometimes the only connection a Carolina Ute fan has with the team is CNN and a two-second glance at the score as it flashes across the bottom of the screen.

Ben Franklin, a software engineer in Durham and a former Utahn, said he relies on phone calls from friends in the Beehive State to keep him informed.

But this week is sweet for Franklin, Lameka and other Ute fans living along Tobacco Road. There is no shortage of Utah basketball news in the local media, and Utah fans who've badgered their neighbors and co-workers with pro-Ute verbiage for years are finally getting some attention.

"I told 'em before every game, `Watch out for the Utes, they are better than you think,' " said Randall Fisher, a Provo native and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical School.

Fisher, a 1984 Brigham Young University graduate who always roots for the Utes - except when they play the Cougars - now has plenty of company. Many of his co-workers have become instant Ute fans now that Utah is playing Duke's archrival, the Tar Heels.

Life for Carolina Ute fans is about to change even more, for better or worse.

A Utah victory in Saturday's Final Four semifinal over the top-ranked Tar Heels would transform them into privileged ambassadors with keys to the city, or at least the gymnasium.

But a loss would be a humiliating setback, likely to prompt a self-imposed, seasonlong sentence of house arrest, or perhaps leading to a state-mandated exile to that barren wasteland of perennial NCAA Tournament flops, South Carolina.

According to the University of Utah Alumni Association, 758 graduates and friends of the university are living in North Carolina. That amounts to 0.5 percent of all known university grads and friends, and ranks 26th in Utah alumni population among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. Utah, as expected, has the most Utah grads living within its boundaries. California is second. Vermont is last.

While 758 is too many to fit in front of your living room big screen, finding a Utah graduate among North Carolina's population of 7.3 million is like finding an uneaten candy bar in Rick Majerus' office. They're hard to come by. And so is Utah sports coverage.

Throughout the year, the Durham Herald-Sun has published a sum total of 6 inches of copy about the Utah basketball program, according to the paper's assignment editor, Bill Stagg. But don't get the idea that North Carolina journalists are uneducated.

"We know where Utah is," Stagg said over the phone Wednesday, his accent confirming his identity. "This may be North Carolina, but it's not South Carolina.

"There is no basketball outside of the (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) triangle. You'd read a lot more about Kentucky and other strong programs, even UCLA (in the Durham paper). I think Utah suffers from not being on one coast or the other."

Some Utah fans are more than just out of touch in Carolina. They've been converted.

Gregory Georges, an 1985 Utah graduate, has lived in Chapel Hill for six years and apparently is beyond recovery.

"I would love to see North Carolina just crunch 'em," said Georges, who claims no genealogical link to Benedict Arnold. "You can't live here in North Carolina and not follow North Carolina basketball."

Phil Larson Jr., a 1977 graduate, has somehow managed to maintain his loyalty to the Utes. Until, that is, Saturday's Final Four matchup materialized.

"He is in a terrible struggle. He's a Ute fan, but he's lived in Chapel Hill for 20 years, so he's having the worst time in the world" deciding which team to pull for, said his wife, Susan Larson.

Larson also is having a tough time convincing his 6-year-old son, Traynham, to favor the Utes over the Heels, his wife said. A Utah victory on Saturday would certainly help.