Tomorrow afternoon, the North Carolina Tar Heels will take on the Marquette Golden Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As many know, the Heels were taken down by Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament after coming out flat on offense, and not being able to do enough on defense. As for Marquette, their Big East Tournament trip was cut extremely short after losing to Creighton in the quarterfinal round. The big difference between these two teams is the hot streak that UNC was on prior to their loss: they were on a six-game win streak going into the game against the Hokies, and only had two losses in the month of February. As for Marquette? Well...a game against DePaul happened. Hopefully that says enough.
Still, the Golden Eagles aren’t to be underestimated in tomorrow’s game. Despite their recent woes, they won big a number of times this season by taking down Villanova (2x), Seton Hall (2x), Providence, and Illinois, all of whom were ranked. Their resume is much better than the Heels when it comes to the season overall, but their recent losses against Creighton (2x), Butler, and DePaul make it easy to wonder if this team is ready for a team like North Carolina. The answer? Maybe, but the Heels would probably have to help their cause.
Let’s dive into some numbers: of Marquette’s six players averaging 20+ minutes of playing time, four of them are freshmen — Darryl Morsell and Greg Elliott are the only players that clear said bar, though it is worth noting that senior forward Kur Kuath is averaging 19.1 minutes per game. After freshman forward Oso Ighodaro, playing time falls off of a cliff, so it goes without saying that Shaka Smart inherited an extremely young team, which is mostly due to players like Theo John and Dawson Garcia leaving the program after Steve Wojciechowski was fired. Youth doesn’t usually equate to tournament success unless you have a bunch of five-star players like Duke or Kentucky, but that’s not to say that they couldn’t pull the rug from under UNC’s feet in the first round.
The other key metric that I found interesting when looking at this game is that Marquette only has two players averaging more than 10 points per game. Freshman forward Justin Lewis is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.1 points per game, and is shooting 45.1% from the field. Morsell isn’t terribly far behind, averaging 13.5 points per game, and is shooting 44.7% from the field. However, games like the one against Villanova at home make these scoring averages a bit misleading — they took down the Wildcats shooting 53.8% from the field, and knocked down 41.7% of their three-point attempts. Freshman guard Tyler Kolek had one of his better performances of the season, finishing with 18 points and went 3-8 from deep. To put it simply: this is a team that isn’t spectacular offensively, but if someone not named Lewis or Morsell gets hot, things can go downhill for the Heels very quickly.
As for the Tar Heels, I think the key to this game is simple: feed Armando Bacot as much as possible, get Brady Manek going on the perimeter, and avoid turnovers. Marquette may not be an elite offensive team, but they are ranked 53rd in steals per game, and 17th in blocked shots per game. UNC has only faced two teams this season that are better at stealing the ball, and they are Tennessee and Miami. The silver lining is that turnovers weren’t the biggest problem for the Heels in those games, but points off of turnovers could still drown their chances of moving on to the round of 32 very quickly. Feed Bacot and Manek as early and as often as possible without coughing the ball up, and we’ll see about that second round game against Baylor...if they hold their end of the bargain.
At the time of writing this article, the Tar Heels are favored by three points according to Draftkings.com. I feel like the Heels have a good chance of not only pulling off a win, but could do so comfortably. Virginia Tech loss aside, the Heels have been playing a lot better lately, and it’s hard to believe that they don’t have at least one win in them during this tournament. I think they come out fired up and ready to go, giving Shaka Smart his first loss against UNC in what feels like forever.
Prediction: UNC 77, Marquette 66