The wait is finally over: the North Carolina Tar Heels will play their first game of the NCAA Tournament Friday night against the Iona Gaels. The Heels will be entering the tournament as the one seed for the third time in four years, and it will be the eighth time in 16 seasons that Roy Williams has helped the Tar Heels achieve such a feat. To put this into perspective, the Tar Heels earned five number one seeds in the 25 years prior to Roy Williams returning to Chapel Hill. Under Roy Williams, the Tar Heels have also made it to the Final Four all but two years as a one seed (2007 and 2012), which gives you an idea of just how dangerous his teams have been when they are at the top of their region.
While historical anecdotes are fun and all, the Heels are just beginning their journey and have to go through a gauntlet to get to Minneapolis. Should they make it past Iona, the Heels will be looking at a game against either Washington or Utah State. Will they be able to survive the first weekend, or is there another Texas A&M waiting for them in Columbus to send the team home early? Only time will tell, but we do know one thing: the Heels are going into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.
To get to the Final Four and potentially cut down the nets in Minneapolis, there are a few key things that need to go just right. Let’s take a look at what some of the biggest keys for the Heels’ success are, and what they can do to make sure the offseason doesn’t start early.
The Coby White and Seventh Woods Show
Coby White has been one of the better point guards in the country going into the NCAA Tournament, and went on a tear through the ACC regular season. He averaged 18.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game, and shot 45.1% from the field and 38.5% from three-point range. During the ACC Tournament, White finished the games against Louisville and Duke with 19 and 11 points respectively, but had a hard time getting shots to fall from deep.
Perimeter shooting issues aside, White has shown lately that he is ready to take on the challenge of being one of the next great point guards of the NCAA Tournament. The big keys when looking at his play down the stretch is seeing whether or not he will be able to get to the rim when his jumpers aren’t falling. He has proven that he can be really lethal when he attacks the rim, and it will be something that a lot of teams will have a hard time stopping. The other big thing to watch for White is what he does when he doesn’t have an option to shoot — there were times during the ACC Tournament when the ball remained in his hands when he couldn’t find what he was looking for, and so improved ball movement and making plays for his teammates will be crucial to the team’s success.
Coming off the bench is Seventh Woods, who has become a really good glue guy for the Heels. While he doesn’t put up many points, Woods is starting to make all of the right plays both on offense and defense for the Heels. The biggest question, however, is how much of Woods will we actually see? Roy Williams is shortening up his rotation, and during the ACC Tournament we only saw Woods for six minutes total against Louisville and Duke. To put that amount into perspective: he played six minutes or more in six out of the final seven regular season games.
No matter what the reasons are for playing Woods in limited spurts as of late, the reality is that the Heels will need him in a big way down the stretch. He has done a good job of facilitating things on the offensive side of the ball in a way that gives teams a different look when White is on the bench. He also has been good defensively, and it never truly feels like the team is hurt when he has to pick up White’s assignment. Woods’ role in the tournament should be similar to Nate Britt’s role in for the 2016-17 team, in that he just keeps things together.
Point guard play in the NCAA Tournament is so important to any team in the tournament, and Carolina has a tandem that should be able to get them where they want to go. Friday night will be their first chance to prove it, and so we’ll see what kind of damage they’ll be able to do in the backcourt.
Fixing the shooting droughts
The beautiful struggle of the NCAA Tournament is that if any of the teams participating want to make it to the Final Four, they cannot lose a single game. The key to championship basketball is scoring a lot of points, which means that it is important to keep scoring over the course of the full 40 minutes. Well, Carolina wasn’t the best at doing that in the ACC Tournament, and it’s a large part of the reason why they lost in the semifinal round against Duke.
For one of the larger shooting droughts of that game, look no further than the opening of the second half. The Heels didn’t score a field goal for the first 3:27, which allowed Duke to break the 44-44 tie and go up 44-50 before Coby White finally made a basket. The next large shooting drought came at the 8:22 mark when Carolina took the lead 65-63. They wouldn’t score an actual field goal again until the 3:29 mark, which means they went almost five whole minutes without making a shot. When you add both droughts up, that is a little over eight minutes without any kind of offensive production.
While there is some credit due to their opposition, the Tar Heels absolutely cannot afford to have these kinds of droughts in the NCAA Tournament. Each team will be giving them their best shot, and it is important that they find some way to keep scoring. Better shot selection and creating plays for their teammates are both going to be big keys in keeping things going, and using their defense to create fast break plays will be important as well. Play like they did against Duke, and things could get ugly really quickly.
Managing UNC’s Depth
As I mentioned earlier, Seventh Woods’ minutes have been down as of late, which could or couldn’t be due to Roy Williams cutting down his rotation. However, one would have to imagine that not only will Woods see more minutes, but other players as well. The big question when discussing their depth is who should we expect to see getting the most minutes off of the bench?
The first and maybe the easiest answer to that question is Nassir Little. Little has been getting quality minutes lately when Williams is wanting to rest Garrison Brooks or Luke Maye. With Sterling Manley playing very limited minutes, Little presents a different look on the floor than both Brooks and Maye. He’s athletic, he attacks the rim and draws fouls at a high rate, he’s been a lot better on the boards of late, and he has been doing a good job on defense, despite lingering issues guarding the perimeter. The NCAA Tournament is Little’s time to show that he can be every bit of the player that everyone thought he’d be before the season started, and Roy Williams should give him ample opportunities to prove it.
The next player we should see coming off the bench is Brandon Robinson. He has been giving the Heels some really good minutes lately, and has the potential to have a breakout postseason performance. Fun fact: during the ACC Tournament, Robinson shot 100% from the field for the entire tournament. The. Entire. Tournament. The sample size is small (he only took four shots, three of which were from deep), mostly stemming from the fact that he never tries to do too much while simultaneously always doing just enough. He’s always been a high-effort player that’s fun to watch, but he’s turning into a player that could be a X-factor for the Heels down the stretch.
Aside from Seventh Woods, expect these two players to get the most minutes for Carolina coming off the bench. All three players have the potential to make noise in the tournament in their own way, and the team will definitely need it. Remember: Luke Maye came off the bench against Kentucky in 2017 despite limited (and often frustrating) minutes over the course of the season, and we know what he was able to do.