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Why UNC will (or will not) return to the Final Four

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Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to last week’s ACC tournament, the Tar Heel fan base felt some combination of hope, trepidation, and uncertainty for the UNC men’s basketball team. There were some very big wins on the resume (Duke, Ohio State, Michigan), and some rather concerning losses (Wofford, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, NC State). On any given night the team seemed to be vulnerable to a loss, regardless of the opponents. On other nights, they approached juggernaut status.

Much of one’s personal concerns are likely tied to what is considered “success” for this year. Another championship? Just making the tournament? Coming off two straight games on the final Monday of the season, maybe a Sweet 16 would satisfy most reasonable people? Those various expectations undoubtedly impacted the level of hope or concern you had. However we can all agree, regardless of the differing opinions for success, everyone would be happy with another Final Four.

So with that in mind, I examine why UNC will (or will not) make it back to another Final Four. An optimist’s and a pessimist’s guide, if you will.

The Pessimist

We all know this person. No matter what the outcome of a game, the absolute most they are willing to concede is that UNC looked “okay”, but they’re going to have to really find an extra gear in March. More than likely, they’re convinced that the refs will screw the Heels in a second round game, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson’s senior swan song will be ruined, and Roy Williams should’ve called one of his timeouts in the first half of this first game. Why might one feel this way?

Defensive Woes

To be fair, the ACC tournament temporarily alleviated some of these concerns. There is precedent for a UNC team deciding to lock down on defense when March rolls around. (See: Justin Jackson and the 2017 national champions). However, we cannot ignore that just one week ago North Carolina was ranked in the 50’s by Ken Pomeroy in his defensive efficiency ratings. They are currently just 34th. No team in the KenPom era (2002-Present) has won the title with a defensive efficiency outside the top 20. A handful of teams have reached the Final Four.

If you aren’t an “advanced stats” guy, then just remember 2 weeks ago the Heels allowed a depleted Miami team to score 91 points on Senior Night. That was followed up 3 nights later by a Duke squad successfully achieving a 20 point second-half swing by scoring 49 points in the second half of the final regular season game. The Heels have also allowed 73.1 points per game, the highest average since Roy Williams’ first season at UNC in 2003-2004.

Inconsistent Bench

This is the least depth a UNC roster has had since 2012-2013, when they flamed out in the second round with a freshman Marcus Paige running the show. In the ACC regular season, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley were the sixth and seventh men off the bench. They only averaged a combined 21.4 minutes per game. Four of the five starters averaged more than 30 minutes per game. Only Theo Pinson averaged less, at 29.1 minutes per game (no doubt skewed by the Clemson debacle).

It is a valid concern when your most utilized substitutes are two freshmen who’s use are largely dependent on match-ups and the score of the game. Not to mention, Seventh Woods’ has been inconsistent since coming back from a lower leg injury. While the bench was extremely impressive throughout the ACC tournament, emotion and adrenaline can cover a lot of flaws. Just ask Duke after last year’s ACCT run was unable to protect them from a surprising loss to South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Digging Their Own Grave

Basketball is a game of runs. This season, North Carolina challenged that axiom in a way few Carolina teams have done before. Often unable to bury their opponents early (at Syracuse, at Louisville, at Duke) or letting lesser talented teams go jump out to surprising leads (Miami x2, at Virginia Tech, Wofford), the Heels played in more than a handful of games that should’ve been over much sooner than they were.

There is not a duo in the country I want on the court in the closing minutes more than Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, but in a tournament that is determined by luck just as much as by skill, it’s fair to be wary of a team that has a penchant for allowing its opponents to hang around or strike the first powerful blow. Particularly in a season as crazy as this one.

The Optimist

Of course, we all know this person as well. They‘re the one that finds the positive in everything. Joel Berry was 3-12 from three? Yeah sure, but the ones he made were clutch. The Heels turned the ball over 18 times? Well, of course they did. They play so fast! The other team had 16 turnovers! If you're this person, here are some reasons to feel good about the tournament. Author’s note: I dabble in this area from time to time.

Offensive Firepower

Why worry about inconsistent defense when you can just outscore opponents? The Heels have five legitimate double-digit threats in their starting lineup who all shoot 35% or better from three. Their offensive efficiency is 121.9 — the fifth highest of the Roy Williams era at UNC. The only years that were better were 2005 (Champions), 2008 (Final Four), 2009 (Champions), and 2016 (Runner Up). The other year their OE was above 120 was 2017 (Champions).

Besides, when you think about it, how many times were UNC so offensively inept that they might as well not even shown up to play? Maybe twice, against Michigan State and at Virginia? Coming into the year, the thinking was that Berry would carry the team, and someone would have to step up as his sidekick. Yet, this past week, Berry never once led the team in points. These Heels are surprisingly more balanced than expected.

That Schedule

Pick any metric you want. No team played more “quadrant 1” games than UNC, who went 14-8 against the top competition in the country. Their strength of schedule was ranked the toughest by KenPom, Sagarin, and ESPN. Of their 10 losses, six were by a combined 24 points. Nine of their losses were to NCAA Tournament teams.

Sure, some of that was due to playing in arguably the most difficult conference in the country. (I refuse to believe the Big 12, which only had four teams with a winning conference record, is tougher). No other conference had more teams finish in the top 50 of Jeff Saragin’s ratings (11), KenPom (10), ESPN’s BPI (10), or the RPI (7). The ACC unbalanced schedule clearly provided some stiff competition for the Heels to test their mettle.

However, crediting/blaming their record on just the ACC would be a discredit to UNC’s non-conference schedule. In November and December the Heels played three conference tournament champions (Michigan, Davidson, and Bucknell), and two regular season champions (Tennessee and Michigan State). That doesn't include tournament teams in Arkansas and Ohio State. Only two of the above-mentioned games were in Chapel Hill.

All They Do Is Win

This team has been through some battles. Every starter not named Cameron Johnson has participated in two ACC regular season titles, two ACC Tournament title games, three Sweet 16’s, two Elite Eight’s, two Final Fours, and two NCAA Championship games. This team, quite simply, knows how to win.

In three years, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson are 13-2 in the NCAA tournament. (Technically Luke Maye and Kenny Williams could claim to be 11-1 through two years, though they didn't play in every game.) How impressive is that? Those 13 wins are more than 341 other NCAA Division 1 teams have in the NCAA tournament this decade. Only nine programs have more NCAAT wins since 2010 than the Tar Heel duo have in the past three seasons.

  • Kentucky, 23-5
  • Duke, 20-6
  • Kansas, 19-8
  • Wisconsin, 18-8
  • Florida, 16-6
  • Michigan State, 16-8
  • Gonzaga, 15-8
  • Butler, 15-6
  • Syracuse, 15-6

For what it’s worth UNC is 21-6 in seven appearances this decade. That means with Berry and Pinson, the Heels have less than half the team’s NCAA Tournament appearances in the last eight years, but have over 50% of the program’s post-season wins. That kind of leadership, talent, and experience is an undeniable advantage in the tournament.

It’s an advantage that will make them one of the toughest outs of the tournament.

Realistic Expectations

Here’s the deal. Most fans are realistic in their expectations. That realism doesn't make the highs any less high, nor does it make the lows any less low. It does, however, provide some perspective, even in the most difficult or enjoyable of times.

Getting to the Final Four is hard. Making back to back title games is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago. The truth is, for as many positive attributes this team has — experience, rebounding prowess, and high assist rates — it has quite a few noticeable flaws. Maybe those flaws — porous perimeter defense, poor bench production, becoming too trigger happy from three— were ironed out in Brooklyn, but they could just easily flare up again in Charlotte or Los Angeles.

For all of the reasons provided, these Heels could stumble to Lipscomb (which, no, is not a comb for mustaches), Providence, or Texas A&M. They can literally lose to anyone on any given night, and they proved that on December 20th against Wofford. One injury or one foul-happy referee, and the Heels can dig their own grave in less than five minutes of game action.

However, for all the positive reasons mentioned, there is no reason to think the Heels cannot repeat a thrashing of Michigan, end the Zags’ season again, or deny Xavier a trip to their first Final Four. I will never, ever, bet against Berry and Pinson in the final five minutes of any game. They’ve proven that our trust in them has been well placed. As Friday and Saturday night showed, these fellas can compete with, and/or beat, the best teams in the country.

The Sweet 16 is a realistic expectation, and a third consecutive Final Four is a reasonable hope.

So, sit back and relax. This has been one helluva team to watch grow and develop. It’s arguably been Roy Williams’ best coaching job at UNC. Theo and Joel are going to graduate as bona fide Tar Heel legends. Just enjoy the ride.

And, whatever you do, don’t count North Carolina out of any game. That’s when they’re at their most dangerous.

Go Heels. Go Iona.