Well, it only took 37 games, but UNC finally looked like the team the preseason narrative said they would be in their 101-86 dismantling of Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen.
If you were following along at the beginning of the season, the sky was the limit for this UNC team, but that prediction was predicated mainly on Marcus Paige returning to the form of his sophomore year. "This team will go as far as the shooting, scoring, and leadership of Paige will take them" was a common theme. Reading between the lines, there were subtle comparisons to other UNC title teams under Roy Williams. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson were the Sean May/Jawad Williams combo while Justin Jackson was filling the Danny Green role. All UNC needed was a Wayne Ellington-esque shooter to emerge and the Tar Heels were an even-money favorite to cut down the nets in Houston.
Except that's not how UNC's season went, and as a result it has been hard for the national punditry to wrap their collective minds around Carolina and their title prospects. Paige was slowed by a pre-season injury, missed games, and stuggled mightily with his shot all season. Meeks was also hampered by injury and has been enigmatic in his intensity and level of play. And Jackson has mixed flashes of brilliance with disappearing acts throughout the season.
In other words, the Carolina team that many people expected from November never materialized. The talking heads who kept saying "when UNC is clicking on all cylinders they are the best team in the country" got tired of waiting for Sophomore Marcus to return, despite the Tar Heels' best-ever-under-Roy-Williams 8-0 start in the ACC. Three losses in four games in early February lightened the Carolina bandwagon considerably and despite winning both the ACC regular season and ACC tournament, it was fashionable to doubt UNC heading into the NCAA tournament.
Some bracketologists were loathe to give the Heels a #1 seed despite being the double ACC champ and beating fellow #1 seed Virginia along the way. Even as the NCAA committee named Carolina the #2 overall seed, some like Stewart Mandel stubbornly said they were undeserving. Only 13 of 31 ESPN "experts" predicted UNC to advance out of their region to the Final Four. CBS' Seth Davis floated the semi-serious idea that UNC could lose to #16 seed Florida Gulf Coast. It was trendy to say UNC would struggle with Providence and talented guard Kris Dunn. Carolina was given better odds against Indiana, but only because a number of pundits had their brackets ruined with Kentucky's loss to the Hoosiers. These slights, some perceived but some real, led to a much-maligned comment from Brice Johnson referring to UNC as underdogs.
All that changed on Friday night in Philadelphia. Paige came out at NBA Jam on fire levels, making his first four three-pointers and finishing with a game-high 21 points on 6-9 from three to go with 6 assists, all while limited to 27 minutes partly due to foul trouble. Meeks took a minute shaking off some of his funk but finished with 15 points and 9 rebounds. Carolina was an offensive juggernaut, putting up 52 in the first half and ultimately hanging 101 on the Big Ten regular-season champs. This was the team the pundits expected in November that we would see in March. And as of Saturday morning, the accolades are pouring in. UNC is back to looking like the best team in the country because Paige went off and Carolina earned NCAA biscuits.
The only thing is, this is not how UNC had barreled through the season after the loss to Duke. As Paige continued to struggle with his shot, Joel Berry became UNC's prime perimeter scoring threat. While the Heels were running their revenge tour through the ACC tournament, avenging losses to Notre Dame and Virginia, Berry was playing his way to MVP honors. And after Brice Johnson announced his presence with authority on the national scene in a 39-point, 23-rebound performance versus Florida State in January, all he has done is collect double-doubles in 22 of UNC's 37 games.
Moreover, UNC's strong run over the last five weeks has been predicated on a renewed defensive intensity. Indiana was only the second team since the Duke loss to score more than 72 points on UNC, while the Tar Heels gave up the season's second-highest offensive efficiency to the Hoosiers (120.4; only Texas was better) as well as 13 3-pointers. Meanwhile after making only 32% of its 3-point shots this season, UNC turned in a crisp 55% against IU (a number lowered by some YOLO attempts when the game was in hand) and an offensive efficiency of 141.9. In other words this was UNC's hottest offensive game of the season but one of its poorer defensive performances. But because it fit the narrative of Paige leading the way, many of the punditry is ready to re-install Carolina as an odds-on favorite to get to Houston and win the whole thing.
Yet anyone who tries to pigeonhole UNC into a Paige-first team is missing the point. Carolina is not Paige-dependent, and they haven't been all season. Berry put up a nifty 14 points and 5 assists on 5-8 shooting and 2-3 from three after a quiet first half. Plus Brice Johnson continues to put up All-American numbers (20 points and 10 rebounds) and yet at least one national writer continues to insanely argue he is only a complementary player. UNC doesn't need Marcus Paige having nights like Friday night to win the national title, but if he continues to do so it will be hard to derail Carolina's march to Houston.