North Carolina can’t shoot. North Carolina can’t pull away on the scoreboard. North Carolina can’t dominate. North Carolina can’t win a national championship.
These and other comments were made by myself and many others in the buildup to this year’s tournament. Sure, the Tar Heels are extremely talented, but could they put everything together and make a deep run this month? Many people, including yours truly, said the answer would be no. In actuality, we got our answer last night, and it’s an absolute and definitive yes.
Going into the Sweet 16, the most-anticipated matchup had to have been the Tar Heels against the Hoosiers of Indiana. It looked as if Indiana’s three-point shooting and ability to run the floor would make the game close; as it turned out, North Carolina’s ability to do both of these things is what would make the contest a blowout.
After dropping a cool 101 points on the Hoosiers, Carolina will face ACC foe Notre Dame on Sunday night for a chance to go to the Final Four. But why in the world are the Tar Heels playing their best basketball of the season at the best possible time? What changed from the regular season?
Truthfully, not a lot changed. What did change was our perception of the Tar Heels and their ability to play with any team in the country. What also changed was the play of senior point guard Marcus Paige.
Paige followed an extremely impressive sophomore season with disappointing seasons in his junior and senior years. This season, in fact, may have been the worst of his four-year college career; his shooting percentages and scoring numbers regressed to freshman year levels. His senior campaign became one mega-sized shooting slump, and he would need to seriously turn things around if the Tar Heels were to be a serious national championship contender.
And turn things around he would. After shooting just 34.6% from deep in the regular season and 6 for 19 in the ACC Tournament, the senior has reversed course and shot 11 for 21 in the Tar Heels’ three NCAA Tournament games. He started the Indiana game by making his first four shots within the first five minutes…. and all of them were from deep. His reversal of course has keyed North Carolina’s success in the tournament, but the team still has its work cut out for it to win a championship, even with Paige playing like this.
To start, the Heels will have to contend with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the Elite 8. Even though the Irish have had a relatively easy road to this point with wins over 11-seed Michigan, 14-seed Stephen F. Austin and 7-seed Wisconsin, they have shown resolve, toughness, and tenacity in these three wins.
In the team’s Round of 32 game against the Lumberjacks, Notre Dame was down a point in the final seconds. This miraculous tip-in from Rex Pflueger won the game and sent the Golden Domers to the Sweet 16:
After that game, the Irish were forced to contend with the Badgers of Wisconsin. A late Vitto Brown three would give the Badgers a three-point lead; that shot would be quickly followed by a layup by Notre Dame’s star point guard, Demetrius Jackson. Subsequently, the Irish would get a steal and another layup from Jackson, jump-starting an 8-0 run over the span of fewer than 20 seconds. The game ended on that note and Notre Dame advanced to the Elite 8.
However, the Heels match up very well with the Irish. The teams played once in the regular season, which resulted in an 80-76 Notre Dame home win. With all due respect to the regular season, that game can be effectively thrown out the window now; the one meeting that was important between the two squads was their ACC Tournament semifinal game. North Carolina won that contest by 31, and there were times in that game when it wasn’t even that close.
The main thing to watch in this contest will be the effectiveness of Notre Dame center Zach Auguste against the front line of North Carolina. If Auguste can be effective and cause havoc on the glass, the Irish will have a chance. If Carolina’s front line of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks can control Auguste inside, it could, and probably will, spell doom for Notre Dame. Either way, that matchup will likely be the main determiner of this game.
If the Tar Heels are lucky enough to beat the Irish, they would play either Syracuse or Virginia in the Final Four. Carolina beat Virginia to take the ACC Tournament but lost to the Cavaliers in late February. On the other hand, Roy Williams’ team beat the Orange of Syracuse both times the teams played in the regular season.
The most interesting part of a potential Syracuse-North Carolina matchup, though, could be its off-the-court storylines, as Jon Solomon of CBS Sports notes:
This also means we’re 2 wins away from the Academic Fraud semifinal between UNC & Syracuse. The NCAA would just LOVE that game.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) March 26, 2016
Still, North Carolina would match up well with the Orange; the problem Syracuse presents is its famous 2-3 Zone, which has held teams to just 53.6 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Virginia, on the other hand, would attempt to beat Carolina by slowing down the pace. If the Tar Heels can play their up-and-down style of play, their chances of beating the Cavaliers are exponentially better.
But those are hypothetical matchups. North Carolina can beat any one of the seven teams left in the tournament because they can win in so many different ways. They have found an extra gear this month, finding its outside stroke in the second season. This ability to shoot the deep ball also helps Carolina’s big men indirectly, giving them more room to operate in the paint and control the boards.
This is why North Carolina is the most dangerous team remaining in the NCAA Tournament. There are times when they aren’t clicking and very beatable, but they haven’t had many of those times in this tournament. If they continue their virtually flawless recent play, they’ll be cutting down the nets after the national title game in Houston.
So come on and raise up, Carolina fans; this one’s for you.