Final Four Preview: North Carolina

It doesn’t happen often, but all four 1-seeds in this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight, leaving many to believe that all four could improbably reach the Final Four. It was a crazy season, but it was looking like it could be a chalk finish.

As we should have expected, that didn’t happen. Instead, only one 1-seed was able to advance to the Final Four, and it was the North Carolina Tar Heels out of the East Region. We’re first going to look at how they got to this point, then we’ll discuss why they can win it all, as well as why they might not.

First Round
Def. 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67
It wasn’t a great start to the Tournament for the Tar Heels, as they led by just one point at halftime of their opener in Raleigh, 41-40. The FGCU Eagles, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in a First Four game, played inspired in the first half, looking far from a typical 16-seed. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the UNC locker room at halftime, because whatever Roy Williams said to his team definitely worked, as they opened the second half on fire, separating themselves en route to a 16-point victory. Brice Johnson dominated the game with 18 points and a season-high 8 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 9-seed Providence 85-66
It was another lackluster first half for the Tar Heels, as they led by just four points at the break. They again flipped a switch in the second half, distancing themselves and holding off the Friars despite a 29-point performance from Kris Dunn. Brice Johnson tallied a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and UNC got a big game off the bench from Isaiah Hicks, who scored 13 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.

Sweet 16
Def. 5-seed Indiana 101-86
After struggling early in each of their first two tourney games, North Carolina came out firing in this one, and led wire-to-wire in a high-scoring affair with the Hoosiers. Many thought Indiana would give UNC a lot of problems, but the Tar Heels were well prepared for this one, getting great performances from their stars Brice Johnson (20 pts, 10 reb) and Marcus Paige (21 pts, 6-9 3pt, 6 ast).

Elite Eight
Def. 6-seed Notre Dame 88-74
Most experts said that Notre Dame would have to play one of their best games of the season if they were going to defeat North Carolina for a second time this season. Notre Dame might have played one of their best games of the season, but it still wasn’t enough to get them a victory. Brice Johnson had his best game of the tournament, scoring 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to a 14-point win.

Why They Got Here: Paige and Johnson
The Tar Heels have been considered one of the deeper teams in basketball this season, but they become arguably the best team in the nation when seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are at the top of their games. Paige missed the start of the season with an injured hand, and even after he came back, he struggled with his jump shot for much of the season. Luckily for UNC, Paige has figured out the issue. He’s averaging 14 points per game in this tournament, and he’s 13-27 from distance. He is a great floor general, and teams now have to worry about stopping him. They can’t worry too much about stopping him though, because the Tar Heels have Brice Johnson playing some of his best basketball of the season. The First Team AP All-American is averaging 21 points a game in the Tournament, and he has been a force in the paint and in the mid-range game. He’s becoming nearly impossible to stop, and he could definitely lead the Tar Heels to a title.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
North Carolina is the best team remaining, and it’s really hard to argue that. They have looked really good at times in all four of their tourney games, and it’s hard to see anybody being able to stop Brice Johnson enough to beat this team. Even if they can contain Johnson, North Carolina has so many other players who are capable of stepping up. Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, all players who have stepped up for the Tar Heels at different points this season. Another reason they could win this thing, believe it or not, is the venue. In past Tournament games at Houston’s NRG Stadium, teams have had a very difficult time shooting the ball. One of the uglier National Championship games in recent memory, UConn versus Butler in 2011, was held in NRG Stadium. Of the four teams remaining, North Carolina is the one that is least dependent on outside shooting. That screams advantage Tar Heels.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
While North Carolina has looked very good in this tournament, they have had, without question, the easiest road of the four teams. The highest seed they played was 5-seed Indiana, benefiting from early losses for 2-seed Xavier, 3-seed West Virginia and 4-seed Kentucky. They get another low seed in the Final Four when they take on Midwest Regional winners, 10-seed Syracuse, a team that North Carolina beat twice this season. Many see that and think victory for the Tar Heels, but it is very difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, let alone a Syracuse team playing with a chip on their shoulder having barely made the field. Their second meeting came in the last week of the regular season in Chapel Hill, with North Carolina barely escaping with a 75-70 win. The Tar Heels are the clear favorite in this game, but Syracuse knows their playing with house money, and the pressure is totally on UNC. If they struggle under the pressure, the Orange could sneak up and pull off another upset.

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