Entering last week’s ACC Tournament, most “bracketologists” had pegged North Carolina as a No. 5 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels’ run through the ACC tourney’s first three games then had most experts bumping North Carolina up to a No. 4 spot, but win or lose in the title game the Tar Heels weren’t likely to climb any higher. So aside from snaring the program’s 18th conference tournament championship, North Carolina’s 90-82 title-game loss to Notre Dame had little impact on what line the Tar Heels would land when the NCAA Tourney field was unveiled late Sunday afternoon.
Rather, burning questions of “Where?” and “Who?” were the ones captivating players, coaches and eagerly awaiting fans. Both were answered with North Carolina facing a tough road to travel for a Final Four run to Indianapolis.
The Tar Heels were slotted into a West Region with Big Ten Champion Wisconsin and Pac-12 champ Arizona occupying the No. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively. Between Arizona and North Carolina sits a 24-9 Baylor squad.
The Tar Heels avoided a Midwest bracket featuring prohibitive favorite Kentucky, but the first of the cards dealt to North Carolina for a hopeful Final Four hand was a bit of a wildcard.
The Harvard Crimson match up against the Tar Heels as the 13th seed, as well as Ivy League rulers in recent years having strung together six straight 20-win seasons. And if North Carolina hopes to dodge and opening-game pitfall against a team making its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance — the first Ivy League program to make four straight appearances since Princeton’s 1989 to ’92 run — it will need to sidestep past a 22-7 Crimson squad that has had its offensive struggles this season but counters with one of the country’s more stifling defenses.
Senior 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward Steve Mondou-Missi was tabbed this season’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and anchors a defense that ranked first in the league and 12th nationally surrendering just 57.2 points a game. Harvard has held foes below the 50-point mark eight times while also limiting opponents to below 40 percent shooting from the field, including just 32.7 percent from beyond the arc.
While the Crimson’s perimeter defense has been sticky, its interior work has been even more impressive giving up a mere 20.2 points a contest in the paint, an Ivy League best. Harvard’s stoppage inside, however, will face its toughest test this season against a North Carolina team that has generated nearly half of its points (48.2 percent) and is averaging 37.5 points per game in the lane.
The Crimson also will have to contend with one of the nation’s hottest front-court players the second half of the season. Junior 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward Brice Johnson has been electric over his past 17 games, averaging 15.3 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting a sparkling 61.1 percent from the floor.
Further testing the Harvard defense will be a healthier Marcus Paige, who looks to be overcoming a plantar fasciitis battle this season and finding the stride that made him the ACC’s preseason Player of the Year selection and landed him on a bevy of preseason All-American teams. Over his last five games, the junior guard has averaged 18.2 points while handing out 5.8 assists per game, and is connecting at a 49.2 percent clip from the field, including 42.5 percent from long distance.
Paige is the catalyst for a high-octane offense that ranks 16th nationally averaging 77.9 points a game and stands in marked contrast to the Crimson’s controlled-tempo approach.
Harvard will allow plenty of seconds to dwindle from the shot clock ranking 256th nationally averaging 64.2 points a game. And it isn’t difficult to locate the Crimson’s most potent offensive threat.
Harvard features only one double-digit scorer in senior guard Wesley Saunders, who is just the second player in program history to receive first-team All-Ivy honors for three consecutive seasons. He is the pace setter for an offense that is tied for 171st in the country shooting only 43.5 percent and is the only player in the league to rank among the top 10 in eight statistical categories including third in scoring (16.3 points a game), second in assists (4.2) and first in steals (1.8).
Saunders is joined in the backcourt by second-team All-Ivy performer Siyani Chambers, who adds 9.8 points a game and led the league in assists (4.3 per game). Providing some scoring punch inside is Mondou-Missi averaging 9.7 points and 7.4 boards a game to join Chambers as a second-team selection.
Like the Tar Heels, the Crimson aren’t heavily reliant on its 3-point shooting, averaging 4.9 makes a game (compared to North Carolina’s 4.8). Harvard, though, will be challenged on the boards.
The Tar Heels rank second nationally pulling down over 41 rebounds per game, are seventh in the country in rebound margin (8.2) and 12th in offensive boards per contest (13.9).
Harvard grabs 34.5 rebounds a game, good enough for a 170 ranking, and its 10.5 offensive boards per outing has the Crimson tied for 186th.