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Tar Heel Hangover: Tournament time

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A remarkable regular season has the Heels poised for a couple of deep tournament runs.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Tar Heel Hangover. This is our opportunity to review last week’s games, second-guess all of the key moments, and set the game plan for the week ahead.

The Elevator Speech: What happened last week.

The Heels closed the season on a seven game win streak that included a season sweep of Duke. They have won those games in just about every way imaginable and are looking like a true contender, if not favorite, for the National Championship. With hearts full of emotion on Saturday, the better team clearly was wearing Carolina Blue. This is a great time to be a fan.

Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .

It is time to celebrate. An incredible 16-2 record in the best conference in the nation resulted in a tie for first place. This included a perfect 9-0 on the road in league play (and an incredible 11 true road wins for the season).

Saturday evening's contest against Duke was a very different game than the one two and a half weeks ago, but the result was fairly similar. Duke hung tough on the boards this time, finishing even with the Heels at 48 apiece. Both teams took care of the ball well, as Carolina finished with only 10 turnovers for the game. Think about how far this team has come in that regard. Early in the year, mid to high teens for turnovers was not uncommon. Now, against an athletic team that forces a lot of miscues, the ballhandling was very good.

Carolina also shot much better than the 2-20 effort from three in the first game. They also shot a lot more, finishing 12-31 from deep. This looked more like the run and fire team that has put up so many points this year. Except, they did not really score much. They finished with 79 points, including only 7 from Luke Maye.

As I wrote last week, trying to determine what will happen in a Carolina game this season can be maddening. Luke was great two weeks ago and was very good on Senior Night with 16 rebounds and 7 assists, but he did not score regularly. Kenny Williams, who has been struggling of late, poured it in with 18 points going 4-7 from three. A mere 13 free throw attempts and only 17 combined points from Maye and Garrison Brooks are certainly indicative of a perimeter oriented team. That seems odd, especially given Zion Williamson’s absence and Marques Bolden’s injury, and what that meant for the Heels last game.

It's hard to argue with the result, though.

We will have plenty of time in the coming weeks and months to reflect on and analyze the journey that this team has taken. But now seems like a great opportunity to just sit back and smile at all they have accomplished.

Take Coby White for example. White has emerged as a leader on this squad of veterans and a key piece to their future success. His shot looks effortless right now (he is up to 38% from three on the season). He is beating opposing defenses down the court and scoring almost at will. His playmaking is a bit inconsistent, still: he's up to 4.1 assists per game on the season but only had 3 against Boston College and Duke last week; but he is undoubtedly exciting and fun to watch.

Cameron Johnson also deserves a point of discussion as the regular season has concluded. I understand the concept of injuries, but in my mind the conference player of the year should participate in more than two-thirds of his team’s games. Johnson is averaging almost 47% from three while putting up about 17 points and 6 rebounds per contest. And while the national consciousness has been steered toward asterisks, let’s remember that Carolina was leading Virginia by 7 inside of 8 minutes left when Johnson went down with an ankle injury. He is a leader on the court, a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders, and a more than capable rebounder and playmaker. That sounds like conference player of the year material to me.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

What an exciting run this has been and the level of anticipation for the ACC tournament is very high. In some years, a run from the double-bye to the championship would look like an early round run through the NCAA tournament. This year, it will look like starting at the Elite Eight. Likely Thursday opponent Louisville appeared just a month or so ago to be on its way to a very high national seed. A host of blown leads has changed that outlook but this is clearly still a dangerous team. Louisville now looks like a 7 or 8 seed, but one that has the chance to win a few games and make some noise.

Get by what's likely to be the Cardinals, and an opportunity to beat Duke for a third time probably awaits on Friday night. Maybe by Friday the Blue Devils will finally be out of excuses. I guess 2019 NBA Draft selections two and four are just not enough.

Saturday would then bring, in all likelihood, a rematch against Virginia. If the Heels get to the Championship game, they will have locked up a 1 seed for the NCAAT. And honestly, the overall 1 seed is not out of reach. Gonzaga would need to lose in the West Coast Tournament and Carolina would need to win the ACC Tournament, but I think a split with UVA and the ACC Tournament Championship could bump the Heels past the Cavaliers. Winning the early season game against Gonzaga would also be beneficial if the Zags falter.

So what I’m saying is they have a chance.

Final Thoughts

The Tar Heels are very, very, good. They can dominate in so many ways on offense that picking one area to game plan against seems futile. The defense is improving. There are upper classmen leaders and a couple of outstanding freshmen. There are quality players coming off the bench.

Time to survive and advance.