The North Carolina Tar Heels are headed into the big dance as a #1 seed in the Midwest region. UNC captured the ACC regular season tournament and came up three points shy of winning the conference tournament. The preseason #1 team, Carolina was everybody’s favorite coming into the season to cut the nets down in New Orleans. Throughout the regular season the Tar Heels were routinely criticized either for losing a game or for not winning by the amount of points everybody thought they should have.
UNC lost some tough, close games to fellow powerhouses Kentucky and Duke, in both cases breaking down at the end of the game and losing by just one point. Losses to UNLV and one of the worst losses in the programs history to Florida State put a dark cloud on an otherwise stellar season for the Heels. Resiliency has been something this team has had to learn through some very tough lessons. In the ACC Tourney, junior John Henson went down with a left wrist injury and North Carolina wasn’t the same team without him, or anything close for that matter. Still, Roy Williams has to be proud of his team for coming so close to winning the conference tournament without the two time ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Let’s take a closer look at the Tar Heels heading into the big dance.
The vibe heading into the Big Dance: The vibe is great right now for the Tar Heels. Ignore the loss to FSU in the conference tournament finals. With Henson in the lineup, UNC wins that game without question. The blowout of Duke in the regular season finale, capping off a stretch of great play down the stretch of ACC play has this team feeling good. Henson, who is listed as questionable for the Tourney’s opener, playing status’ for the rest of the year is an obvious concern. Assuming Henson can in fact play, his injury may have created more momentum and confidence for the team as a whole. Freshman James Michael McAdoo got his first extended play time of his college career and did a nice job in his first test. McAdoo still looks raw at time, especially on the defensive end of the floor but his performance is encouraging. Fellow freshman PJ Hairston also received more minutes than he got in the regular season. Hairston finally broke out of his near season long shooting slump against FSU scoring 14 points and hitting three, three point shots in the process. If Hairston and McAdoo can give the Heels some productive minutes off the bench in the big dance, it might just be Henson’s injury that helped them along.
Biggest Factor: The biggest factor by far is the injury status of John Henson. If Henson plays, the Tar Heels can be considered one of the favorites to cut down the nets. If he doesn’t play, it’s all about how far UNC can make it without him before they get bounced from the tourney.
Most important player: Reggie Bullock, the big four of Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and John Henson are vital to the Heels success. Without those four, Carolina would not even be a real threat to win the tourney. They also can’t do it alone either and other players need to step up around them. Bullock will be huge, his play on the defensive end will be the key to whether or not Carolina can contain the oppositions best perimeter player. On the offensive end, Bullock needs to establish his shot which will be critical for UNC who needs to create effective spacing for their big men to work inside. If Bullock can stretch the defense and be the fourth or fifth scoring option while playing consistent defense the pressure on the big four to win it every night lessens significantly.
Tar Heels win the tourney and cut down the nets as national champions if: John Henson must play first and foremost and the injury cannot limit his effectiveness. Without Henson, the Sweet 16 is probably UNCs ceiling. UNC will win it all if they continue to dominate the boards and push the tempo. No team in the country, not even Syracuse can run with Carolina if they get the tempo they want. UNC will only get that tempo by controlling the boards, and they will only control the boards if Henson plays. The Heels must also continue to improve their perimeter defense and force teams inside the three point line where their defense flourishes. Offensively UNC must get something from their wing positions. Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston both will be relied upon to give the team tough defense. Offensively Bullock needs to give the team a reliable jump shooter in the starting lineup and help space the floor so the big men can operate in the post down low. Hairston needs to be that guy off the bench for UNC, PJ showed up for the first time in a big way in the ACC tournaments championship game. It was the first time the Heels saw the Hairston they expected this season in a long time. They don’t need him to drop 20 or even put up double digits every night, but he must provide the team with a reliable threat off the bench. The play of fellow reserve James Michael McAdoo is almost as important assuming Henson plays. McAdoo has come on strong over the course of the last month or so of the season. The freshman also peaked in the ACC tournament like Hairston, these two playing up to potential makes things a whole lot easier on the rest of the team.
Tar Heels fail to accomplish their ultimate goal and go home early if: John Henson either doesn’t play or isn’t able to perform the way he typically can do to the injury. UNC will also go home early if they fall back into some of the old habits we saw from them early in the season. Carolina had a bad habit that seemed like it went on forever of falling asleep and failing to continue attacking after taking the lead. In the tournament the Heels cannot fail to take every team they face seriously. Even the opening round is important, UNC cannot afford to waste time, they need to get out to a huge early lead to give themselves the ability to rest the starters. UNC must guard against an upset as they will face at least a couple teams with nothing to loss. Perimeter defense will be a major factor as well, since the injury to Dexter Strickland they have had difficulty at times containing good three point shooting teams. They were vulnerable to giving up big games from star perimeter players initially after the injury. While some big name players have still put up a decent amount of points against them, nobody has taken over against Carolina in a long time.
Bold UNC Tourney Predictions: I think we’re going to get to see Roy Williams face Kansas in the tournament this year. And I think Carolina is going to destroy them. The national championship game between Kentucky and Carolina will go down as one of the most epic title games in history. UNC will win in dramatic fashion when the game goes down to the final seconds and the Heels hit a big basket to win. Before all that, Michigan will give UNC a huge scare and the Heels will have to climb back from a double digit Wolverine lead in the second half.
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