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UNC’s NCAA Tournament: Three Things Learned

Superstitions, officiating, and rebuilding.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, this particular post was written much earlier than any of us expected. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how the tournament works. Matchups matter. Health matters. A little luck always helps (or hurts).

Before the season even started, I thought UNC’s ceiling was the Elite Eight. There were multiple reasons for that way of thinking. As the season continued, though, this team never stopped improving. They lost just three games over the last 11 weeks of the season. The defense began reaching the same levels as previous Final Four and championship teams. No UNC team had ever played faster. After beginning the season with a 1-4 record in games they trailed by just 6 points, they improved that to 7-6 in such games. (Saturday’s loss made brought that final record to 7-7).

Simply put, this team believed – and made us believe – a seventh NCAA title was completely plausible. Instead, the entire Auburn team put on a performance reminiscent of Harold Arceneaux’s one-man wrecking crew in 1999. Just like that, one of the most successful senior classes that has ever come through Chapel Hill saw their careers come to an end.

As disappointing as this weekend was, here are three things we learned from the tournament. These are directly and indirectly to UNC.

Past Doesn’t (Always) Dictate the Present

Optimism was high on Selection Sunday. UNC earned their eighth #1 seed under Roy Williams. UNC has never failed to make the Elite Eight as a #1 seed under Williams. They had only lost once in the Sweet Sixteen (2015), and just twice on the first game of the weekend (2015, Final Four in 2008). These Heels were loaded with experience in Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams.

The bracket was tough, but not insurmountable. The prospect of playing Kansas in Kansas City seemed like the biggest obstacle – even if that was based more on emotion than reality. Kentucky, who beat UNC earlier in the year (just like in 2017), loomed in the bottom of the bracket for an Elite Eight matchup (just like 2017).

That doesn’t include the odd ACC Tournament parallels. Duke won the conference tournament this season, just like they had in 2005, 2009, and 2017. In 2017, the Heels even lost in the ACC semi-finals to Duke, just like this year. Fans could find hidden meanings everywhere.

None of it mattered.

If anything, we were all reminded once again that the tournament is a cruel thing. Patterns can emerge and trends can make for fun conversation. They can be used to reinforce a pessimistic or optimistic point of view. Ultimately, though, they are almost always meaningless.

There is one exception that held strong.

Kendall Marshall and Ty Lawson are the only two starting freshman point guards to lead UNC to the Elite Eight. No other starting UNC freshman point guard has made it past the Sweet 16. Ever.

What is a Flagrant Foul?

Throughout the tournament it was clear that the ACC may have different standards and/or procedures when dealing with fouls. At a minimum, it was painfully obvious there is zero consistency across the college, specifically pertaining to flagrant fouls. Most UNC fans are probably thinking of Garrison Brooks’ trip to the dentist after the win over Washington, as well they should.

If there are any referees reading this, I’m sure there is some eye-rolling, chuckling, or heavy sighing. That’s fine. As a current fan and former student assistant, director of operations and coach at the Division-1 and high school levels, the overall product is hard to watch. It’s more frustrating to understand. There is always going to be some inconsistency. Refs will miss calls. Human nature makes the game fun. That’s not the issue.

My beef is the ACC appearing to take an overly strict, CYA approach to calling flagrant fouls. During the season, Seventh Woods was called for two Flagrant 1’s when his elbow made contact with an opponent while he was running. Sterling Manley was on the receiving end of an elbow against Clemson, when Elijah Thomas vertically raised his arm up and down, battling for position. In the process, he accidentally hit Manley in the face, also drawing a Flagrant 1.

Those three fouls were followed up with an extended replay review as refs slowed the play down in an effort to observe every ripple of muscle and facial expression. Or, I assume that’s what they were doing. I don’t know how any replay review takes as long as it does in the ACC.

Meanwhile, in the NCAA tournament, Brooks takes an elbow to the face. In the Sweet Sixteen Zion Williamson nails Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson on the side of the head with a raised elbow/forearm on a drive into the lane. Neither were called a Flagrant 1, and both took a video review of approximately 60 seconds. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

Personally, I don’t think any of these plays were worthy of a Flagrant 1. Reasonable minds will likely disagree, but that isn’t important. The fact that those are just five examples with vastly different results is a major problem. The most “severe” acts (which took place in the NCAA tournament), were deemed “basketball plays” and play resumed within 60 seconds. In the ACC, Woods’ natural running movement was considered a Flagrant 1 (after not initially being called a foul) and the play was dissected at the scorer’s table like the Zapruder film.

Whatever your feelings on fouls (regular and flagrant), replay reviews, “basketball plays”, “player safety”, or officials, the current model has to be improved.

(Note: I fully acknowledge I didn’t see every single foul of this tournament or the regular season. If you have other examples, the comment section awaits).

Rebuild or Reload?

Luke and Kenny just finished one of the most successful four-year runs in UNC history. Three #1 seeds, a national title, two Final Fours, three ACC regular season championships, and another ACC tournament title. That’s a lot of success, experience, and talent that’ll be graduating in May.

Adding Cam to the mix, North Carolina will lose at least three starters. Freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little might also leave for the NBA, meaning UNC could lose five of their top six players. Most programs would accept that as a worthy payment for a Sweet 16. North Carolina fans, however, are spoiled.

In a worst-case scenario, North Carolina will have to replace 76% of their scoring, 64% of their rebounds, and 68% of their assists. Anyone watching this tournament has to be scratching their head about where that production would come from. The 2017 National Champions didn’t even lose that much production for the following season.

I usually don’t get too concerned from year to year. There is always someone waiting in the wings. I’m not convinced that’s the case right now. With Cam and Little battling an illness, did any player look like they were ready to take on an increased role next year?

As it stands now, the current starting lineup could be Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson, Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, and Sterling Manley. Even if UNC nabs their top recruit, Cole Anthony, and incoming freshman Armando Bacot is ready for a starting role, does a starting five of Anthony, B-Rob, Black, Brooks, and Bacot strike fear into anyone? Four first time starters at the college level, two of which are freshmen?

Will it all work out? Probably. It almost always does and it’s still early to think too far ahead. A few recruiting and potential graduate transfer decisions are still to be determined.

That doesn’t mean Friday’s loss didn’t raise some valid questions for next year’s team.