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.
A nice home win followed by a difficult road loss. I doubt there have ever been many last place teams on three game winning streaks this late in the season. Perhaps there was a little too much confidence heading into Durham, but at this time of year, confidence is a good thing. This is especially true for a team with a losing record.
At last, it is March and the regular season is behind us. Time for a comeback.
Water Cooler Discussion: If I were the coach . . .
The concept of expanding the tournament field has been a popular one for years. 68 teams seems to be an insufficient number to let all of the tournament worthy teams in. For Carolina, the field this year is 350.
With a record that is five games below .500, the chances of a National Invitational Tournament bid have totally evaporated. For the rest of the year, it is win or go home for the Heels. So the question that remains is, can they do it? This last couple of weeks has proven that the answer is a resounding maybe. Let’s plot the course.
There are two things that must happen for a five game run through the ACC Tournament for Carolina (besides the obvious requirement that they win all five games). First, Cole Anthony has to shoot the ball well. Against Duke, Anthony was a mere 4-14 from the field and 0-2 from three. During the three game win streak, he shot at least 57% in each game and was a combined 12-20 from three. Simply put, when Anthony scores at an efficient rate, Carolina wins. When he struggles, the team struggles with him.
Second, there needs to be a couple of easy wins. It is just not realistic to expect Garrison Brooks to maintain his 35 minutes per game over five straight days. There must be a couple of games with 25 good minutes and plenty of fluids. Look for the Heels to spread the floor and work the clock as much as possible. This could be counter-intuitive for a program that typically loves to run, but this year is different and the strategy must be different too.
First up is Virginia Tech. The Clemson buzzer beating three was a hard pill to swallow, but it was the January 22 road loss in Blacksburg that really accelerated the tailspin. Oddly, it accelerated the tailspin for both teams. Since that game, Virginia Tech has gone a mere 2-10 and is reeling. The Heels need to get off to a great start and put this game away early.
A win in the opening 7:00 game will allow a full 24 hours of rest before facing Syracuse at 9:00 PM on Wednesday. The Heels handled the zone with ease a little over week ago and would need to do so again to get through to Thursday. Look for another huge game from Brooks roaming through the interior of the zone for the win.
The Thursday quarterfinal will be the hardest challenge of the entire tournament. Carolina does not match up well against Louisville and will need to hit a lot of shots from the perimeter to advance. The only advantage would be having already played a couple of games, there can be some early momentum against a cold team.
From there, it is anybody’s guess. Maybe second seeded Virginia survives against Notre Dame and the Heels are forced to grind out a low scoring game with tired legs. The good news is that it will not take a lot of points to win. The bad news is that it would be exhausting.
The best news on the other side of the bracket would be a great run by Clemson to get to the finals. They are certainly capable of beating both Florida State and Duke, but the Tigers may not make it past Miami. If Carolina could somehow make it Saturday, then the emotion may overcome the fatigue. Maybe.
For a team that has had such a difficult season, it is amazing how much hope fans find in the coming week. This is a squad that is capable of winning against anyone in the league. Carolina certainly makes a peculiar underdog story, but they are a last place team with championship potential. If the players are half as hungry for success as the fans, this could be an exciting five days.