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Can UNC Be Trusted in the NCAA Tournament?

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Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, ESPN's Myron Medcalf published a piece naming eight teams "you shouldn't trust...yet". It is not surprising that UNC would be on there given some of the inconsistency this team is prone to, even in the midst of the 12-game winning streak.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels made some great plays to finish Notre Dame in a 63-61 win on Monday and extend their winning streak to 12 games. But they entered the second half with a 14-point lead against a Fighting Irish team with a 6-12 record in ACC play. That’s just North Carolina basketball. That stretch illustrated their entire season. Always up for the top dogs, always vulnerable against the rest. This team might show up and make a remarkable run in the Big Dance. But don’t be surprised if they don’t get past the first weekend, either.

As far as the premise goes UNC has given plenty of reasons why they might not make a deep tournament run or end up in the Final Four. Unfortunately for Medcalf he doesn't choose to focus on those reasons and instead falls back on a tired, lazy narrative that hasn't been in operation for roughly two months.

The "up for big teams, down for bad teams" label for this UNC team died in early January. It didn't die because the Tar Heels have won a dozen games in a row, it died because it was proven be untrue with losses to Syracuse and Virginia(good teams) in the same stretch as losses to Wake Forest and Miami(bad teams.) It also died because one of the factors that put UNC in a position to lose to questionable opponents was the players' approach to the game. The Tar Heels hadn't truly bought into bringing the same kind of effort and intensity in every game. That clearly changed when UNC beat Clemson and has largely carried over throughout the longest ACC regular season win streak since 1987.

Even the last three games are not necessarily signs that the Tar Heels are suddenly playing poorly because the competition is not Duke or Michigan State. While UNC has not played well since blowing Wake Forest(a bad team) out in Chapel Hill, it doesn't mean the Tar Heels have fallen back on their old ways either. The game at NC State was always going to be a tough proposition and despite Virginia Tech's shortcomings, that game was more about the tempo and a Hokie zone defense which is a tough combination for UNC to handle.

Medcalf cites the Notre Dame game as a sign of UNC of this issue of UNC not taking bad teams seriously. While UNC didn't play well in this game and seemed a little flat at times, the long grind of the prior two-plus weeks may have been a bigger factor than how the players approached the game. The second half ended up being a perfect storm of UNC missing everything and Notre Dame making almost everything. Maybe UNC thought the game was in the bag or maybe the second half was further evidence of one inescapable fact.

UNC is a flawed offensive team.

That is why Medcalf falling back on the early season narrative strikes me as particularly lazy. There isn't much to question about how this team plays from an intangibles standpoint save a stretch here or there. There is plenty to question about this team's ability to string together a consistent offensive performance or avoid gaps in offensive production. Couple that with bad free throw shooting and what you get is a formula for a potential quick exit from the NCAA Tournament.

UNC is very much a team that will go as far as Marcus Paige will take them. Since ACC play began UNC has lost four times, Paige was in single digits for three of those games. In the two recent wins during which UNC struggled offensively, Paige again didn't break out of single digits. Paige's play is incredibly important. He is UNC's only reliable three point shooter and facilitates the offense like no one else on the team can. When he is on UNC plays at a much higher level. When he isn't UNC needs help from other quarters. For much of ACC play, James Michael McAdoo has been that other scoring option. In other instances it's been J.P. Tokoto or a solid game from Kennedy Meeks or Leslie McDonald or Brice Johnson.

The issue is UNC rarely gets everyone on the same page at the same time. If that happens games like UNC had against Wake Forest happen. If it doesn't then the margin of error gets thinner. When Paige is not playing well then UNC often hangs by a thread. The upside for this team is they have been able to hide a suspect offense with a great defense. At the end of the day, that might be the saving grace for this team and the most conspicuous sign yet that this team is not the team up and down team from November and December. Teams with players who aren't buying in and invested in winning don't tend to be solid on the defensive end. This Tar Heel team has been and if the offense comes along for the ride, UNC has a very high ceiling. At present that is a pretty big "if"

It also should be noted that UNC heads into a portion of the season where all the games matter a great deal. To suggest that UNC won't bring it in the NCAA Tournament against the #13 seed because it's the #13 seed is a little silly. The game versus Duke comes at a good time since UNC was able to get a four day break and a rivalry game of this magnitude is great way to snap out of any complacency that may have set in over the course of the long winning streak.

On one level Medcalf is right. UNC could have issues in the NCAA Tournament but the reasoning is all wrong. The limited nature of the Tar Heel offense from inconsistent post play to the lack of perimeter shooting to poor free throw shooting means UNC is more susceptible to losing a game against the wrong kind of team or defense. It is a general rule that match-ups impact NCAA Tournament viability but in UNC's case there are more that will bother them than not due to the offensive limitations.  If it so happens UNC loses early in the NCAA Tournament we won't be talking about effort or focus, we'll be talking about the offense going south at the wrong time.