(WNCN) — As if this college basketball season couldn’t get any weirder, the North Carolina Tar Heels are the Triangle’s only team making a trip to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament.
The South region’s eighth-seeded Tar Heels, who finished 18-10 with a semifinals trip in the ACC Tournament will get a first-round matchup against the Big Ten’s ninth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in what looks like an evenly matched game on paper.
Williams says the meeting against the Badgers will be a “big-time challenge” and knows his team will have to be on their A-game to advance.
So, how can the Tar Heels be the last team standing to cut down the nets? The simple answer is “just win, baby”, but it won’t be that easy for a team who only, fortunately, found their stride late in the season after putting together a roller coaster of a campaign.
Here’s what North Carolina has to do:
Limit second-chance opportunities for opponents and get out in transition
If you’ve ever watched Roy Williams-coached teams, you’ll quickly notice that he expects his players to get defensive rebounds and push the ball up the floor to keep opponents on their heels and get easy looks at the rim off their trademark fast-break action.
North Carolina’s break is deadliest when the post players run and run hard and playmakers make the right “pitch-ahead” decision after the outlet pass.
Freshman forward Day’ron Sharpe runs the floor harder than most and will need to be rewarded when he does so, meaning on-point passes from guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis and wing Leaky Black are pertinent.
Other big guys Armando Bacot, Walker Kessler, and Garrison Brooks will also need to put on their running shoes and make sure they are finishing layups and dunks, too.
The Tar Heels boast one of the bigger teams in the country and have the ability to have two guys on the floor that are 6-foot-10 and taller at all time or use the rangy, 6-foot-8 Black as a small-ball four in certain situations. North Carolina has also depended on the play of its big men to win games this season, making up for the lack of elite guard play.
There should be no reason why UNC should lose the rebound battle on their quest for a championship. In fact, North Carolina averaged the most team rebounds in Division I hoops and outrebounded opponents by a margin of 10 rebounds per game.
If North Carolina is able to get out and run and turn their own defense to offense, it will be hard to beat this team.
Find ways to score in their half-court offense & hit timely jumpers
North Carolina’s struggles to score in their half-court sets will be the main hindrance on the title journey and they have teams who really defend well standing in the way.
Wisconsin is not an offensive juggernaut by any means and relies a lot on the three-pointer to generate buckets. But what they do well is defend.
Possible second-round opponent, Baylor has been known for its lockdown defense in recent years and this season it is no different.
The top-seeded Bears are one of the top defensive teams in the country, have an amazing backcourt, and will know what to do to limit North Carolina in transition and the half-court, although execution will be the true test.
Williams will need his guys to set strong screens for shooters and pass the ball well to avoid turnovers and get open looks, especially late in the shot clock.
This North Carolina team is devoid of a “give me the ball and get out of my way” option when in the half-court, and sometimes forces ill-advised three-pointers from a team that does not shoot the ball particularly well (5.6 made threes a game, 307th in D-I).
That issue showed late in the Tar Heels’ semifinals ACC Tournament matchup against Florida State. Although North Carolina made a miraculous second-half run, the Seminoles clamped down on defense, limited transition opportunities, and only allowed one UNC field goal over the last four minutes of the game.
North Carolina sharpshooting guard Kerwin Walton could use a jolt from Love and Davis who are capable shooters themselves, although they don’t always shoot it well. Love has had games this season where he has gone 1-for-7 from three and Davis has had his struggles as well.
The good thing about those two guys is that they do not lose confidence in the midst of a bad shooting night. In a win-or-go-home atmosphere like the NCAA Tournament, timely, clutch threes will be all Love, Davis and even Black need to do to help their team from the perimeter.
Each has shown the ability to step up in big games and their play will be key to neutralizing opposing backcourts.
Take care of the ball and limit turnovers
Although most teams have played an uneven range of five games to as many as 30 games, North Carolina has turned the ball over more than almost every team in Division I men’s hoops with 414.
The Tar Heels have cut down on turnovers in recent games, particularly in the ACC Tournament and have an odd 4-1 record when recorded 20 or more turnovers.
As odd as it is, North Carolina will be leaving Indianapolis early if it cannot cut down on turnovers.
First-round opponent Wisconsin won’t turn you over as much, but a second-round meeting against the Baylor Bears will see the Heels go up against a team who forces turnovers in their sleep.
Baylor forces 17.33 turnovers per game, good for ninth in Division I and 14th in total turnovers forced.
The South region boasts more of college basketball’s stingiest teams, including three-seed Arkansas (12th in total turnovers forced) and Texas Tech, who made a recent Elite 8 run on the strength of their defense. The sixth-seeded Red Raiders rank 9th in total turnovers forced.
Floor general Love will be counted on the most to take care of the ball and the Tar Heels seem to win when he does. In games where Love committed two or fewer turnovers, North Carolina is 8-2.
If history repeats itself, the Tar Heels will be moving on as Roy Williams is 29-0 all-time in first-round tournament games, including a 15-0 mark since arriving in Chapel Hill in 2003.
But it only gets tougher from there.