UNC is the ACC’s last hope in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Can the Tar Heels salvage the league’s reputation and claim the school’s sixth national championship?
North Carolina is ACC basketball’s lone wolf.
The No. 1 seed in the South Region is the last remaining team from the conference in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, as the other eight invitees from the league failed to reach the event’s second weekend.
Up next for UNC is No. 4 Butler, which is back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2011. Chris Holtmann’s Bulldogs advanced after a win over No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee, as the Bulldogs displayed their balance and versatility en route to withstanding a late-game rally by the Blue Raiders.
The Tar Heels, who defeated Texas Southern and Arkansas in the first two rounds, are co-favorites to claim this season’s national championship, according to the latest odds released by Westgate Las Vegas Sportsbook. UNC and Kansas are both listed at 4-1 to cut down the nets.
But in order for Roy Williams and Co. to claim the program’s sixth national championship, they will need to play much cleaner basketball beginning on Friday night against the Bulldogs in Memphis.
It starts with the heart and soul of this team, Joel Berry II. He doesn’t need to be the team’s top scorer or have the type of performance from 3-point range that Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig had in the first round against Virginia Tech, but he does need to be more efficient from the field. He was 2-of-13 from the floor, including just 2-of-8 from behind the arc, on his way to 10 points on Sunday. His veteran leadership and ability to make those around him better are vital components to his game, but he needs to be sharper with his shot, especially after getting his 3-point percentage up to 40.1 percent this year.
Of course, the Heels’ starting point guard may have been feeling the effects of the injured right ankle he suffered when he landed on the foot of a Texas Southern defender in the team’s first game. Berry was held out of the next day’s practice as he continued to get treatment. With the team’s next game slated for Friday, Berry will have plenty of time for his ankle to get better while working on his stroke.
Meanwhile, star forward Justin Jackson broke out of his shooting slump, scoring 21 points against Texas Southern. The ACC player of the year had made just 20 of his last 60 shots heading into the Big Dance, including just 7 of 31 3-pointers in his previous four games. The 6-foot-8 junior was able to score 19 by halftime in the opening game, though, and he followed that up with 15 more points—including the game-sealing dunk off of a turnover with 3.5 seconds left—to help the Heels escape against Arkansas. He was only 5 of 14 from the field, but he hit 50 percent of his 3-point attempts, and he added in eight rebounds and five steals. He was aggressive, which is very important because he looked a little bit passive late in the season. He will need to continue to play like one of the best players in the country.
UNC also needs its frontcourt players to contribute offensively in order to take a little bit of the scoring burden off of Jackson and Berry. Senior Isaiah Hicks was vital to UNC holding off the Razorbacks, scoring on a dunk and hitting four free throws in the closing minutes after previously connecting on just 1-of-6 field goals in the game. Meanwhile, junior forward Theo Pinson has made just four field goals over his last three games.
But the real key is Kennedy Meeks, who had 16 points—including a big tip-in with 44.2 seconds left—to help UNC advance. Meeks grabbed 11 rebounds for a double-double, and he needs to be a top interior scoring option as well as disruptive inside presence for the Tar Heels to control the paint moving forward. That has been a strength of this team all season long. UNC out-rebounded the Razorbacks, hauling in 18 offensive boards, with Meeks getting seven of those off of the glass. Those second-chance opportunities are huge on nights when the team’s shooting is below average. If the Tar Heels are kept off of the offensive boards when Jackson and Berry aren’t hitting their shots, they will be in danger of being sent home.
UNC believes that the experience from its run to last year’s NCAA title game prepared it for another Final Four journey this time around. The team’s core players experienced the heartbreak on the court when Villanova clinched the title with a 3-pointer at the buzzer in last year’s championship game.
Close games such as the one against Arkansas aren’t necessarily a bad thing to further battle test a veteran squad. The Tar Heels didn’t panic late in their 72-65 win on Sunday night, showing poise when they trailed late after having had a 17-point lead, which is the sign of a veteran squad. But Williams and the players know that they are also capable of playing much better basketball.
And better efforts will be needed as UNC seeks to cut down the nets on the first Monday of April in Phoenix.