It has been one of the more intriguing seasons in recent memory for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Riddled with off-the-court controversy and suspensions to start the season, no one really knew what to think about the Heels preseason rank of 12th overall in the AP poll. Nine games into the season, the NCAA finally made a decision on what to do with the Heels’ two suspended players: they kicked the best player off of the team and out of school, and decided to let the 5th-year senior return to the team. The team suffered puzzling non-conference losses early in the season; sprinkling these losses in between wins over some of the best teams in the country, which ultimately had everyone scratching their heads. The Heels started 1-4 in the ACC and had sole possession of last place in the conference. At just 11-7 overall, many Tar Heel fans were already looking forward to welcoming in the Heels’ 3rd ranked recruiting class for next season.
But then the winning streak happened. The Tar Heels won 12 straight games (all in the ACC) and ended up finishing tied for 3rd in the ACC at the conclusion of the regular season. Just when we thought the Heels were back on track and could contend for a national title, they have now lost their last two games; both games in which the Heels did not play their best basketball by any means.
The Heels earned an at-large bid in the NCAA tourney, landing a 6-seed for the big dance. The Heels will face the 11-seed Providence Friars, who had a Cinderella-esque journey through the Big East Tournament, and ultimately knocked off the heavily-favored Blue Jays of Creighton and their insanely automatic shooter, Doug McDermott.
The Heels will face the Friars in San Antonio on Friday, March 21, in a game that they shouldn’t have too much trouble winning. Well, hopefully. Losing two straight heading into the NCAA tournament isn’t exactly a confidence booster or a momentum builder, but hopefully the Heels will have some lesson to take away from the losses to Duke and Pittsburgh.
As I survey my soon-to-be billion dollar bracket, I think the Tar Heels are capable of defeating every team in the East Region, at least when they are playing their best. This season the Tar Heels became the first team ever to defeat the top 4-ranked teams in the AP Poll since the Poll began prior to the 1961-62 season: Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, and Duke. Many experts have Michigan State reaching the Final Four out of the East Region, but UNC has already defeated Michigan State this season in East Lansing in front of a hostile Michigan State crowd.
If the Heels are able to knock off Providence in the first round, I don’t think they would have trouble with any teams until the Elite 8. The Heels would most likely face a tough Iowa State team in the second round; a team that won the Big 12 tournament. Although the Cyclones took home the Big 12 title (which was the toughest conference in America this season) I have watched this Iowa State team play many times this year, and I think the Heels can and will take them down. The Cyclones have one of the most impressive players in the country in DeAndre Kane, who played four years at Marshall before attending Iowa State for a one-year graduate program, but J.P. Tokoto has the height and athleticism advantage over Kane, and could potentially contain him. The Cyclones have a lot of good players in the frontcourt in Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, but both are a little undersized and less athletic than Brice Johnson and James McAdoo.
If the Heels are able to make it past Providence and Iowa State, they would most likely face Connecticut or Villanova in the Sweet 16 match up. As Shabazz Napier goes, so goes the UConn Huskies. Although containing Napier is a tough task considering he is in my opinion the best point guard in the country, if Tokoto is able to do so, the Heels have the personnel to sneak past Connecticut. Villanova was considered a one-seed in the tournament until they suffered an early exit in the Big East Tournament, and although the Wildcats finished the regular season 28-4 overall, they are very beatable. They play a very good brand of team basketball, but I am often hesitant to rely on a team to make a deep run in the tournament when they have no future NBA players, which is the Wildcats’ biggest question mark. The two teams that would be the most trouble for the Heels are Michigan State and Virginia, one of whom the Heels would likely face were they to advance to the Elite 8.
It has been a perplexing season full of ups and downs for the Tar Heels. After impressive wins, disappointing losses, a horrendous start to conference play followed by a 12 game win streak, which was subsequently followed by two straight losses, the Heels have reached the big dance. The Tar Heels have been resilient all season, but have also been fairly inconsistent as well. The Heels can officially put all of the drama from the regular season behind them and focus on winning one game at a time, starting with the Providence Friars. It is difficult to predict which team will show up for the Heels, but we hope it will be the team that has proven they can defeat any team in the country. Friday, March 21 will tell us what this Tar Heel team is really made of.