It’s been twenty years since a college basketball program reached the NCAA final in three consecutive seasons. At the end of January, North Carolina didn’t look like a threat to set a new precedent—the Tar Heels lost five of their first nine ACC games and this appeared to be a team that could—at most—get up to the 5-6 seed range and maybe reach the Sweet 16. No more. Roy Williams has the Tar Heels coming together and they have a real shot at replicating the Kentucky run of 1996-98 where the Wildcats played for the national title each year and won it twice.
North Carolina is playing without two of the players who keyed last year’s championship season and the 2016 run to the final game against Villanova. Justin Jackson, the best all-around talent and Kennedy Meeks, the most physical rebounder, are both gone. But one man who’s still there is point guard Joel Berry, the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s Final Four and averaging 17ppg this season. In an era where most college programs have to choose between talent or experience, it’s a big boost for the Tar Heels to have their offense run by a proven winner this March.
Luke Maye was mostly a role player last season, until he hit the buzzer-beater in the regional final against Kentucky that sent UNC back to the Final Four. This season, the 6’7” junior has been a force from start to finish. He also averages 17ppg and his ten rebounds a game lead a team that hits the glass better than anyone else in the country.
Berry and Maye are the headliners, but a player to keep a close eye on in this tournament is senior forward Theo Pinson. Arguably his team’s most complete player, Pinson averages 10 points/6 rebounds/5 assists. If Pinson is firing on all cylinders, if 6’7” Cameron Johnson keeps at it with his 13/5 per-game average, and if freshmen Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks come off the bench to attack the glass, there is nothing North Carolina is really lacking.
Well, maybe one thing—the Tar Heels rank 34th in defensive efficiency. The stat adjusts for pace, so the aggressive tempo North Carolina usually plays at is not the reason for a ranking that’s mediocre by the standards of a championship contender. If you’re going to pick the Tar Heels to go another run, there has to be a belief that their dominant rebounding will cover for the fact they don’t force enough misses.
And for the short-term, simply looking at their path in the West Regional, there are no other great defensive teams. Xavier is the top seed and they rank 59th in defensive efficiency. Gonzaga, the 4-seed, is better, at 15th, but still built more around an explosive offense. Third-seeded Michigan is a decent defensive team, but not elite.
That means anyone that beats North Carolina is going to have to do with offense and rebounding and that’s just not working right now. The Tar Heels played 9 of their last 11 games against NCAA Tournament teams and another one against Notre Dame, who should have been in the Dance. UNC went 8-3 in those games. One of the losses was to Duke, whom Carolina beat twice in the same time period. Another loss was to Miami, also avenged in the conference tournament. The only team to beat the Tar Heels without also losing to them was Virginia—whom you may note, is a great defensive team.
It’s for that reason that I’m picking North Carolina to return to the Final Four. The betting odds for the Heels to do so are 5-2, making them a co-favorite with Gonzaga in the regional. I’ll further add that I think UNC’s 18-1 odds to win another championship is the most attractive price on the board and that I at least expect them to be playing on Monday night for a third straight year.