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Tar Heel Hangover: How sweet it is

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The Heels return to the Sweet Sixteen with a statement win on Sunday.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Washington vs North Carolina Rick Osentoski-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 advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with a hard fought win over Iona and a very impressive game against Washington. A couple of injury scares seem to not have any long-lasting impact at this point. Also, welcome to the spotlight, Nassir Little.

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

First, a scheduling note: how long were the first two days of the tournament for Carolina fans? Having to wait until almost 10:00 on Friday to see the Heels first action of the weekend was torture. Sunday was quite the opposite with Carolina playing the second game of the day, although it was quite delayed thanks to Tennessee going into overtime. Regardless, it is hard to argue with the results.

It was a very impressive weekend for the whole team, but especially outstanding was Nassir Little. Little went for a combined 39 points and 11 rebounds in the two contests. He looked absolutely dominant on the interior at times as he powered the Heels in the paint over 38 minutes of game action.

I had the privilege of watching the first two rounds with My Grumpy Dad. His biggest takeaway? The significance of Nassir Little’s play. When Little is playing his best, there is no limit to how good the team can be. If this level of production continues for Little, the Heels will be very difficult to beat.

Speaking of freshmen, Coby White broke out of his shooting slump going 4-7 from outside the arc against the Huskies. He got started quickly with a trio of early threes that paced the Carolina offense. His speed was a factor in both the second half against Iona and most of the game against Washington. This effort was particularly necessary as Seventh Woods continues to be a bit up and down off the bench.

It was not just a show for the newcomers. Welcome back to the tournament Luke Maye! Luke had 36 points and 23 rebounds across the two games. His work on the boards was outstanding as is his midrange jump shot. Luke continues to struggle a bit from deep but he is finding other ways to contribute and push the team toward victory.

Cameron Johnson presents an interesting combination of veteran leadership and inexperience. The fifth year graduate student did not have a lengthy stay in last year’s tournament and his former team was not exactly a March powerhouse. His second half play on Friday spurred an 18-4 run that woke up the Heels from a first half slumber.

This is a team with a ton of offensive weapons that is virtually unstoppable when playing together.

Thoughts on the first weekend of the Tournament.

  1. The bubble was indeed very, very weak. Perhaps this is more a reflection on the strength of the top tier teams, but there was clearly a divide and it showed through the first weekend. Only two teams outside of the top four seeds made the second week and one of those was fifth seeded Auburn. The other is Oregon, who advanced past 13 seeded UC Irvine as the 12 seed.
  2. After the first two days, there was a lot of noise about the “best” conference in America being the Big 10. Going in to the Sweet Sixteen, the ACC has 5 teams, the SEC 4, and the Big 10 has 3. Does this mean that the ACC is now the best conference now? No. This is just more a reflection of seeding and the dominance of the higher ranked teams.
  3. The top teams look to have vulnerabilities, except perhaps for Gonzaga. Almost everyone struggled at some point over the weekend. For Carolina, the first half against Iona was particularly stressful. With such highly seeded teams advancing, this should be an upcoming weekend full of fantastic battles.

Looking Forward: A quick peek ahead.

Just like every other region, the Midwest is mostly chalk. It would seem somewhat fortunate to not have to play Kansas in Kansas City, but be careful what you wish for. On Friday, Carolina will take on the Auburn Tigers. Auburn has been on quite a roll lately and they shoot a ton of threes with occasionally deadly accuracy. Historically, the Heels have been vulnerable to streaky outside shooting but this team is guarding the perimeter with significantly more success. Additionally, Auburn plays very fast so expect a track meet. First team to 90 will win.

Get by that game, and Carolina will face the winner of Kentucky-Houston. I expect that to be a very competitive contest with a ton of athleticism on both sides. Houston has cruised through the first two rounds but they will be tested by a very talented Wildcats team.

Final Thoughts

The first weekend is over and there are now only 16 teams capable of winning the national championship. Survive and advance.