We are just one day away from the North Carolina Tar Heels opening up NCAA Tournament play with their game against Lipscomb. By now, every analyst in the country has tried making sense of what to expect during March Madness, including us here at THB. I myself made some predictions about what craziness could happen, but didn’t really go in-depth in terms of what we can expect from the Tar Heels.
So what should we expect? It’s an excellent question with a very open-ended answer. It’s obvious to any sports fan that technically the best team in the country can lose on any given night if they do not perform up to their standards. The issue here when trying to crack UNC’s code, however, is that they have exhibited every look possible this season. At best, they are one of the best teams in the country. At worst, they are a very good team with some major holes. So, with that said, let’s take a look at the best case and worst case scenarios for UNC as we prepare for the first game in Charlotte.
Best Case Scenario
This year’s team has been really fun to watch when they are playing well. Watching them play in the ACC Tournament was the most reassuring stretch of games I’ve witnessed all season to let me know that this team is ready to take on whatever comes their way in March. In fact, their biggest glaring issue all season was virtually a non-factor up until the championship game against Virginia. This team is tough, they have a bunch of players that have been to back-to-back national championships, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to make it a three-peat.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about how the Heels have stepped up defensively. In their first three games of the tournament, UNC held their opponents to 34, 31, and 26 percent respectively from three-point range. What’s remarkable about this is not only the fact that they went three-straight games allowing 50% earlier in the season, but that their lowest percentage allowed in the tournament was against Duke, who has some fantastic three-point shooters. Alex O’Connell even found his way into the game Friday night, and he is as close to Luke Kennard as you can get in terms of his efficiency. He finished his night with a goose egg, missing his only shot attempt from three.
What’s even more remarkable about what UNC’s done on defense, is the shots they’ve prevented from even being taken. Every shooting percentage that you can look at from the ACC Tournament is not reflective of what actually happened during those games. UNC forced teams to drain more shot clock than I have seen in a long time, locking up players off the ball and making it very difficult for teams to have any open looks. This of course, is with the exception of Virginia, but if you watch how Virginia operates on offense you understand why they shot at such a high percentage. They play an infuriating style of offense, setting up screen after screen after screen after, well, you get the point. There’s not a lot you can do when a team is that relentless in finding good looks, and honestly, it’s not likely that UNC will run into anything that potent again unless they happen to make it to the Final Four for round three with the Wahoos.
Offensively, the Heels have a lot of things going for them. A common statement made is that great defense leads to great offense, and I would say that’s more or less the case for this team. What’s really been huge for them, however, is Theo Pinson’s play during the ACC Tournament. Pinson looks every bit like the five-star player Roy Williams recruited a few years ago, and a lot of that is due to health and experience. This is his first season getting to be on the court for close to every game (I’m still bitter about that Clemson game), and what we’re seeing is a player who knows exactly how good he is and what he is capable of. He will be huge in helping UNC reach their ceiling.
Aside from Theo, there’s a lot of firepower on this team that helps ease the sting of shooters going cold. Opposing defenses have to pick their poison in terms of who they want to beat them: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, and Luke Maye have all had huge individual performances throughout the year. Sterling Manley also has been giving good minutes off the bench, and Garrison Brooks has been playing fantastic defense and managed to contribute a bit more offensively during the tournament than he did during the regular season. This team, when it boils down to it, is just good. A lot of analysts are sleeping on UNC this year due to history of reigning champions, bad defense during the regular season, etc etc. That’s a mistake, and UNC is capable of proving it to be a huge one.
Best Case Verdict: Final Four appearance if Virginia makes it as well, back-to-back national champions if Virginia doesn’t.
Worst Case Scenario
Cameron Johnson took a nasty spill during the ACC Tournament. In fact, he took a few of them. He didn’t play the last five minutes of the Virginia game, and as of right now, Roy Williams isn’t expecting to play him against Lipscomb. This isn’t a big deal in the first game, UNC should be fine as they will likely start Brooks in Johnson’s place. This will give them a strong defensive core of Brooks, Pinson, Berry, and Kenny Williams.
What worries me however, is whether or not Cam will be healthy for the other games. He himself feels like he could play, but what’s troubling is the idea of him re-aggravating his injury by coming back too soon. UNC needs him for basically every other game in the tournament, as he is one of their better offensive players averaging 12.7 points for the season. It will be hard to make up for that kind of production, and if they have to do so, this will be a very vulnerable team.
Another big concern is what we can expect from the bench alongside Garrison Brooks (seeing how he’ll start until Cameron is healthy). As I mentioned earlier, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks gave good minutes off the bench during the ACC Tournament. The problem, however, is that they are still freshmen and they are not without their blemishes. Can Manley stay on the court as long as he needs to? Can Brooks continue to score? Can they both stay out of foul trouble? Will the big lights of the NCAA Tournament make them play timid? All of these questions can be met with a big fat “I don’t know,” which can be a problem seeing how nobody else on the bench has been able to do anything. The absence of Jalek Felton could quite possibly start hitting this squad hard unless Seventh Woods manages to find his game during the tournament. While he definitely had his share of bad nights, Felton had a lot of potential to catch fire during this stretch. Someone will have to step up alongside Brooks and Manley, and they’ll have to do it fast.
Finally, the defense. I mentioned the defense as a reason that UNC could make it back to the national championship game, but the fact of the matter is they have shown us that they are capable of playing great defense before, only to take two steps back again and let teams shoot the lights out of the building. Trusting them on the defensive side of the ball is like trusting the Arizona Wildcats to make it to the Final Four: you know it’s possible, but doing it is a whole other story. The stat line 15-30 could quite possibly haunt me in my nightmares this offseason, but the Heels could find a way to make it much worse.
Worst Case Verdict: A sweet sixteen loss to either Michigan or Houston.