Everyone can rejoice: The NCAA Tournament officially kicks off today. North Carolina takes on their first round opponent tomorrow night. The Iona Gaels (17-15, 12-6 MAC) will try to pull the upset against UNC. As UMBC proved last year, an upset is possible. Fortunately for us, Roy Williams is 28-0 first round games and UNC hasn’t lost the opening game since Harold Arceneaux of Weber State went out of his mind in 1999.
So, with that basic understanding, here are three things to watch for in the first game.
Pace of Play
If you rely on the number of possessions as a measurement for pace of play, this may be the fastest paced Tar Heel team we have ever seen. It’s certainly the fastest under Roy Williams. According to KenPom, UNC has an adjusted tempo (AdjT) of 74.3 possessions per game and unadjusted (or “raw”) average of 76.1 possessions per game. (The adjusted tempo factors in level of competition). Both are the highest totals in Williams’ time at Chapel Hill and are in the top five of the country this season.
Iona has an AdjT of 70.6 and raw average or of 71.3, good for 48th and 68th in the country. If that doesn’t seem too fast, consider that just six tournament teams have higher adjusted and unadjusted tempo rates than Iona -- North Carolina, Buffalo, Belmont, Duke, Yale, Arizona State. (Gonzaga also has a higher raw average, but a slower AdjT). Simply put, Iona likes to play fast.
That will mesh perfectly with UNC’s style and game plan. The Heels are 0-5 when they score fewer than 74 points and 27-1 when they score 74 points or more. With the pace of these teams, this game should easily exceed the required point total for a Tar Heel victory.
Leaky and Sterling
The two recently returned reserves are unlikely to get much playing time in March and April. Coach Williams said as much on weekly recent radio show. North Carolina has a comfortable rotation that has been successful and reintegrating players always takes time. In a pressure-packed environment like the tournament, it’s incredibly difficult to find a comfort level for everyone involved. Especially for two underclassmen who have played limited minutes this season.
However, with the likelihood of a blowout looming, whatever time these two get on the court can only be a positive. While this team has not been as deep as originally hoped, they have a solid eight-man rotation. In the tournament, though, it’s always helpful to steal a few minutes. Additional rest for Kenny Williams, Garrison Brooks, or Luke Maye in the early parts of games can be a huge help over a weekend.
For a team that is as versatile as North Carolina, getting Leaky Black and Sterling Manley some easy minutes won’t be a problem. Iona should provide that opportunity. Whether or not the coaching staff wants to take advantage is unknown.
North Carolina has been able to avoid a catastrophic injury. It doesn’t take a major injury, though, to deal a blow to a team. The injuries mentioned above forced UNC to adjust their rotation and put some undue pressure on certain positions. Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson’s ankle injuries didn’t cause them to miss a full game, but inopportune timing did derail a victory against UVA.
This is the time of the year little nicks, sprains, and bruises can become a much bigger deal. Last year, an injury to Cam’s hip lingered after taking a rough fall against Miami late in the year. This week, Kentucky’s PJ Washington was placed in walking boot just as a “precaution”. Cam Johnson was held out of practice earlier this week for rest and a possible issue with his shin.
Cameron adds that it is a little shin issue and a precautionary move. He expects to practice Wednesday. https://t.co/HTW2Tmr6Bg— Ross Martin (@RossMartin_IC) March 19, 2019
Other than getting a comfortable win, North Carolina needs to come away healthy. If there are any lingering injury issues or concerns about fatigue, this would be the game to rest key contributors and let the reserves get some valuable “warm-up” minutes.
Hey, it worked in 2009 when Ty Lawson sat out the opening game against Radford. That year turned out to be pretty memorable.