Four and a half months of college basketball has led to this: 64 teams remaining to battle it out and determine the NCAA national champion. It’s a feeling familiar to Tar Heels and their fans, as they currently have one of the longest active tournament streaks in the country at eleven, and since the field has expanded the Tar Heels have only missed the NCAA’s four times.
Some tournament runs begin with more hope of an extended stay than others, though, and this year definitely comes with the feeling that the Tar Heels could be out at any moment. Any 8/9 game is going to give you that feeling, and this 9-seed comes out of a tougher conference and with some big wins under their belt. The guy on the sidelines also doesn’t exactly quake in fear at “North Carolina” on the jersey, either.
So what should we look for as Carolina takes the court with Marquette tomorrow? Here are three ways that they can move on to the second round.
Make your shots
The Thursday game against Virginia game hid something that became big, bright, and clear the next night against the Hokies: the Tar Heels didn’t like shooting in Brooklyn. Brady Manek was the only Tar Heel to shoot over 50% on Thursday (8-15); the rest of the team shot 17-50. Then when Manek went a paltry 4-10 against Virginia Tech, it couldn’t hide the team as a whole going 22-60.
The Tar Heels were the last ACC team to take the Barclays Center court in the tournament, and because of when they arrived they very likely didn’t get much, if any, time to actually shoot on the floor before their game. Combine that with the back-to-back games and you at least have built in excuses to miss the Atlantic Ocean when you’re sitting on top of the Cyclone.
Under coach Shaka Smart, the Golden Eagles are holding their opponents to 41.1% shooting overall, and only 31.7% from three. This squad has beaten Villanova twice, so they know a thing or two about bothering teams that want to make it from deep. So while you can get in the weeds about other things, it really is as simple as this: the Tar Heels need to make their shots. Even if they as a team don’t shoot over 50%, if someone gets hot, they’ll need to feed that person the ball.
Marquette doesn’t have a lot of size down low. Only two players two get on the court with a regular basis are over 6’9” and neither of them average over 20 minutes a game. Their leading rebounder is actually Justin Lewis, a 6’7” forward, and it’ll be interesting to see who they use to guard.
Virginia Tech was able to bother Armando Bacot last week by constantly doubling, and almost tripling, him any time he got the ball down low. The problem Marquette has is that they don’t quite have the size to pull this off in the same way, and this should create either more opportunity for offense from Bacot, or more likely, Bacot to find the open player for a jumper. The Hokies may have done Carolina a favor by showing that defense to them, giving them something to practice this week, so that any team trying to copy it won't surprise Bacot like Virginia Tech was able to.
If Carolina isn’t leading the rebounding edge, it’d better be because they are shooting over 60%. If it’s even or Marquette somehow leads that number, it’s going to be a short stay in Fort Worth for Carolina.
To some extent, Marquette may have been a great matchup for the Tar Heels in that they don’t have a lot of options, consistently, on offense. Lewis not only leads Marquette in rebounds, and by a lot, he also leads them in scoring, and by a lot. Lewis averages over 17 points a game, shooting 45% overall and 35% from three.
After that, only one other player is averaging double digits for Marquette: Darryl Morsell, a 6’5” grad student who averages 13.5 a game. His field goal and three-point percentages are actually lower than Lewis, but if Hubert Davis plans to use Leaky Black on Lewis, then Marquette will likely look to get Morsell going instead. At 6’5” he’ll have a height advantage on Carolina’s other guards, so they’ll have to focus on defense similar to how they did for most of Duke and Virginia.
After that, the next best points getter for Marquette averages under eight a game. Thus, even though the Tar Heels only go about six deep right now, they do have the advantage in that almost any one can be a huge catalyst on offense. If Carolina can use that, find the holes in the Havoc defense, and shut down Lewis and Morsell early, they have a good shot at winning.
That said, this is usually the time some random player will light it up. Looking for a name? Try Kam Jones, who plays about 18 minutes a game, usually doesn’t start, and has only made 55 three-pointers all year. That said, he’s the highest shooting regular at just under 40%, which seems to be the ingredients needed to step up when the Tar Heels slack somewhere on defense.