When top-seeded UNC begins its NCAA Tournament run Friday against No. 16-seed Texas Southern, six of its top contributors from last year’s run to the championship game will be back out on the court again for a good portion of playing time.
Although Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson won’t be walking through the door, the rest of this veteran Tar Heel squad will finally get a chance to show the nation what folks in Chapel Hill have spent all year paying attention to.
While boasting many similarities to last year’s squad—mainly the names and faces—this group of Tar Heels has established its own identity over the past few months.
Junior wing Justin Jackson made the leap from solid contributor to ACC Player of the Year thanks to the development of a deadly three-point shot, while point guard Joel Berry seamlessly filled the leadership void Paige left behind in the backcourt.
On the inside, senior forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have each posted the best numbers of their college careers.
Some of that, no doubt, comes from their improvement as players. Credit can also be given to the Tar Heels’ increased perimeter efficiency—shooting close to 37 percent as a team from three-point range compared to just under 33 percent last year, which was good enough for 268th-best in the country.
“We could really get the ball inside with Brice [last year],” Berry said Tuesday during the team’s press conference. “We threw it down there and he was giving us a lot of points. Just because of that, they were having to double team him and then Kennedy and Isaiah were getting theirs.
“Last year we didn’t shoot the ball as well from the three-point line, but I think that’s something we’re doing a pretty good job of this year,” he added. “It’s more of a balance than it was last year. The inside-outside game is better than what it was last year too.”
Versatility on the offensive end has been UNC’s calling card all season long, due in large part to the skills of Jackson and fellow junior wing Theo Pinson.
Head coach Roy Williams earned himself a spot in the Hall-of-Fame using an up-tempo system that relies on two traditional big men in the post. Changes from that system have been few and far between during his nearly three decades as a head coach.
Jackson and Pinson, however, have unique skillsets which have convinced Williams to use them in multiple positions—including forward and center—throughout the year.
Since battling injuries early on, Pinson has settled in as the starting shooting guard and established himself as a dynamic playmaker capable of creating an assist out of nowhere.
Jackson—the key cog in UNC’s perimeter resurgence–has struggled to find his shot in the Tar Heels’ recent outings. He’s even admitted to the media he’s putting a little too much pressure on himself to be spectacular.
Heading into the tournament, both players will be essential to the Tar Heels’ success.
With Pinson playing as well as he has all year, though, Williams has focused more of his attention on getting Jackson back into the right state of mind before Friday’s opener.
“There is concern, but I think we’ll see Justin get back to being who he was the first 30 games,” Williams told reporters Tuesday. “He and I have had a couple talks. And he’s even told you guys he thinks he pressured himself too much and felt like he had to do this, had to do that.
“I’ve addressed that with him,” the coach added. “I hope it’ll be helpful to him, and I think it will be.”
The sixth Tar Heel on this roster who saw significant playing time in last year’s NCAA Tournament is senior guard Nate Britt.
One of the media’s favorite stories last season was the fact that Britt’s brother, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins, is the man who hit the buzzer beater that sank the Tar Heels in the NCAA Finals.
The emergence of sophomore guard Kenny Williams as a key contributor–prior to his season-ending knee injury– caused Britt’s offensive production to slip as a senior.
Still, though, Britt represents the main area where UNC needs to improve in order to avenge that crushing loss—its defense.
He’s been named the team’s defensive player of the game by the coaches a team-best 10 times this season, and a total of 27 times in his career.
The Tar Heels often bail themselves out with superior offense and rebounding—always the two main characteristics of a strong, Williams-coached team—but their defense has allowed opponents to shoot 42 percent this season.
That mark ranked fourth in the ACC, but isn’t quite as good as last year when they led the league in that category by holding teams to just over 40 percent from the floor.
While the team has looked strong defensively at times—namely during its run to the Maui Invitational Championship in November—Williams tries to look beyond statistics when evaluating his team on that end of the floor.
“It’s been inconsistent,” Williams said of his team’s defense. “I’m not one of those analytical guys where I have to look at stats to see what I strongly believe. There was one stat that said games where we haven’t gotten as many offensive rebounds we’ve lost.
“Well, duh–good god, you don’t have to go to analytics to see that,” he continued. “For me, I go by how we’re playing. We’ve had some good moments and we’ve had some bad moments.”
After Duke scored at will in its win over UNC during last Friday’s ACC Tournament Semifinals, Williams made sure to remind his team that in each of the Tar Heels’ last two national championship seasons they’ve come up short in the conference semis.
As much as it hurt to lose to the Blue Devils, this team is filled with players that know what real hurt on the basketball court actually feels like—having seen a national title slip through their fingers at the buzzer.
If things can come together defensively for at least six games, the Tar Heels have enough new wrinkles on offense this year—and the best rebounding team in the country—to help get the job done.
“We realize that this point is where you lose one, you go home,” Berry said. “You don’t get another chance like losing in the ACC Tournament, then having a chance to go to the NCAA [Tournament].”