So here we are, on the threshold of the Tar Heels’ first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2009 National Championship game. Before we say anything else, I’ll acknowledge that it feels good to be back, especially after some early-season trepidation over this team that had a lot of fans wondering if UNC would be competing for the NIT title again this year. However, with as much as this team has accomplished, it’s not simply enough to say we’re happy to be here. What would make the fan base happy? Well, you could probably ask a dozen people that and get a number of different answers. True to the team’s form this year, UNC’s perceived ceiling has wavered from “Sweet 16 at best” to “National Title contender” depending on how well they played up or down to the opposition. Now, after a shaky ACC tournament, fans aren’t sure exactly where to place their expectations. So my hope lies somewhere between the two mentioned above - if Carolina doesn’t make it to next weekend, I can honestly say I’d be pretty disappointed. However, when they are at their best, I’d argue they can compete with any team in the country.
The winning elements for this Heels team aren’t easily identifiable, because they seem to change week-to-week. There isn’t any particular facet of the game that victory may hinge on for UNC (in the way that some think that Duke lives and dies by the 3) but it’s a balanced squad that defends very well for a Roy Williams-coached team, among the top 10 in the country in defensive efficiency. So what elements do the Heels have to have present over the next 3 weeks to win it all? In a bit of situational irony, let’s look at key factors that our most hated rival, Duke, identified as necessary to winning it all last year and are trying to replicate this year with their own title run:
1) Role Acceptance - For Carolina, this means tweaking a few players’ approach to the game slightly to replicate what we saw from the Heels at their apex, performances like hanging 100+ on Boston College on the road and dominating Duke in Chapel Hill to close the season. It applies both to individual players (Dexter Strickland, please don’t go looking for your shot, but concentrate on being a shut-down defender; Kendall Marshall, I know you’re feeling more and more confident but don’t let that translate into riskier decisions, just be an efficiency machine) and to the larger team as a whole (this team is at its absolute best when the offense starts from the inside out, by Zeller and Henson getting some looks and then the perimeter guys don’t feel like they have to carry the load the entire game, but thriving off of getting some extra space).
2) Trust - This goes along with a lot of what I said above but trust to me comes down to believing the guys around you are all going to do their part. The danger I see in Carolina peaking when they did, coupled with Harrison Barnes playing so well, is that at times in the ACC tourney this team looked more like a bunch of talented individual guys figuring out how they could do something great rather than just trusting their system and playing hard as a team. We know Barnes can come through in the clutch, but he has to trust guys around him to get touches and make shots before that point. We know John Henson can be one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the country, but he has to trust that other guys are going to D up, as well, not just thinking he’s going to clean up their mess once they let a man blow by them.
3) Dealing with Adversity - This is one area where the Heels have certainly had a healthy dose throughout the season, but are better for it. The team seemed to really come together after the Larry Drew defection, although as I mentioned in the paragraph above that sense of “team” was slightly absent from the ACC tournament. A 17-point loss in the tourney final to your arch-rival can certainly qualify as “adversity” in some sense, as well, so here’s hoping UNC can harness that setback into a tangible sense of purpose again moving forward. If the Heels stop believing they’re as good as some media members made them out to be and feel as though they have something to prove, that attitude will bear itself out as toughness on the court.
4) Honesty - Overall, I think what Carolina needs to accept what they are and focus on their strengths - they are a defensive team, so they have to exert energy constantly on that end and focus on hitting the boards as a group; they are balanced, so they need to let guys take shots within the offense rather than just looking for Barnes every time the team feels like they need a key bucket because he’s the big dog now; and they are young, so they’re going to have to make up for things like occasional mental errors by exerting an exponentially higher amount of effort. As Jay Bilas likes to say, effort is a skill, and one that the Heels seemed to be lacking at times in the ACC tournament when they fell behind to all three teams they faced. They cannot let that happen in the NCAAs.
You may have noticed that nowhere in any of the above analysis did I mention possible future games with teams that may give them trouble, or what teams could present matchup problems, etc. That choice was intentional. Those are certainly real obstacles, but Carolina can only control the part of its destiny that lays in their own hands - the rest of the bracket will take care of itself. Yes, hitting 3-pointers and cutting down on turnovers are things that need to happen against every team. Yes, they’ve certainly proven they could lose on any given night if they have a lapse in concentration.
I, like lots of Tar Heel fans around the country, think this team is probably a year away from possibily winning a championship. But these Tar Heels, improving more and more over the course of the year, have shown themselves to be confident and capable of beating the best in the country when they are locked in. And in a year like this one, where there is no clear favorite, maybe all you need is a chance.