Since the turn of the calendar, the North Carolina roster has engaged in a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Seven players score at least nine points against N.C. State, and the Tar Heels are on top of the world. Two players do at Miami, and UNC falls apart.
Jackson drops 18 in the first half against Virginia, and North Carolina is a title favorite. Nine days later in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jackson scores seven points and the Tar Heels look like amateurs offensively.
That’s the issue with this year’s team — the ceiling is the roof. There’s no limit to UNC’s potential, in either direction.
I think the Tar Heels will take home the ACC title, if only because they’re unlikely to face nemesis Virginia along the way. But once North Carolina gets to the NCAA Tournament, all bets are off.
Face an opponent with a strong frontcourt and competent 3-point shooters, and it’ll be an untimely exit. I think the Tar Heels’ kryptonite will come in the Elite Eight, even if they’re better than the round would suggest.
John Bauman, assistant sports editor and Wii Bowling world-record holder
I believe in this North Carolina team. I really do.
UNC has as much motivation as any team in the country following last year’s defeat in the Final Four. The players have talked a lot about how much that experience — and the fun the team had during it — has motivated them to return.
And this season, the Tar Heels have taken their hits but come out stronger each time. Losses at Georgia Tech, Miami and Duke only made this team better. UNC’s home win against Duke on Senior Night is the best proof of that.
I believe in Isaiah Hicks’ ability to not foul in March.
I believe Kennedy Meeks can dial it up an extra gear and lead this team back to the Final Four.
I believe in Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and the likelihood that their shots will keep falling even as the games get more intense.
I believe in North Carolina’s bench, one of the deepest in the country. Any coach would love to have Luke Maye or Nate Britt to plug into key moments. First-years Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods have also proven their worth.
Most of all, I believe in Roy Williams. He’s been here many times before. I think he has masterfully managed expectations with this current team, ensuring that its best basketball would come in March.
Well, March is here. And I believe that North Carolina will get back to the Final Four — and win it this time.
Blake Richardson, assistant sports editor and dog enthusiast
I know, I know. North Carolina has its weaknesses — chinks in the armor that could be fatal down the stretch in tournament play.
But that doesn’t mean UNC will not find success in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. If anything, the offense will get faster under the spotlight, and the team’s depth and experience will prove life-saving in games that hinge on flawless performances in the final minutes.
I know that in the right circumstances, North Carolina could collapse. There are holes in the Tar Heels’ play that will turn into craters against competition that knows how to exploit them.
This, in my mind, is what will make the ACC Tournament particularly threatening, since those opponents know North Carolina better than any other foes in the country.
UNC’s strengths are so staggering, though, that I don’t see the average team finding those weaknesses fast enough to keep the Tar Heels from winning the ACC Tournament, NCAA Tournament or even both. (Heck, you know what I think. I wrote a whole column about it on page 7.)
Maybe I’m an optimist, maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m still hurt and hopeful after last year’s heartbreak.
But maybe — just maybe — I’m also right.
Jeremy Vernon, assistant sports editor and the guy you’ve definitely seen at Four Corners
By now, most of you have probably heard enough of my opinions on this team (and if you haven’t, please check out my column on Page 7 and try your best to refrain from slinging expletives in my direction if you see me on campus after spring break).
That said, I still think this North Carolina team is a top-tier squad in the country. No team in the ACC matches up great with the Tar Heels. Duke, Florida State and Notre Dame don’t rebound well enough. Miami and Virginia don’t have the scoring prowess to keep up. And N.C. State — oh, wait, the Wolfpack were eliminated in the first round. Sorry, Mark Gottfried.
The Tar Heels should work past their first round opponent in the ACC Tournament with relative ease. A potential rematch with Louisville could await in the semifinal Friday, but North Carolina has shown that it can top the Cardinals.
That puts UNC in the final against what could be several different teams. The Cavaliers would pose the biggest threat to the Tar Heels — they figured out how to effectively stop Justin Jackson, something few other teams have been able to do — but I don’t see Virginia getting through.
That leaves Florida State and Notre Dame as the likely opponents, neither of which jump off the page. North Carolina will win the ACC Tournament for the second year in a row.
But once the Tar Heels move to the NCAA Tournament, things will start to get very tough for a team with a lot of sketchy parts.
It’s hard not to imagine a scenario in which Isaiah Hicks fouls out of a game or Joel Berry has one of his vanishing-act games where he goes 0-for from the floor.
The Tar Heels will be able to weather the first few tests. But once they hit the Sweet 16 and a batch of tougher teams, they’ll get punched in the mouth and won’t be able to recover.
Mohammed Hedadji, senior writer and founding member of the “Start Isaiah Hicks” Club (Est. 2013)
I dare not count North Carolina out before the team even steps foot in Brooklyn, but it’s difficult to see the Tar Heels earning their way to a sixth ACC Championship appearance in seven years — let alone winning it all.
While UNC has dominated its ACC foes as of late, the Tar Heels will ultimately fail to double-up the best conference in the country for a second straight year.
With the ACC regular-season title in hand, and in front of a sea of Orange faithful, the Tar Heels will stumble against Syracuse in stunning fashion.
But expect the Tar Heels to respond to their bitter loss with a blazing start to the NCAA Tournament. UNC has yet to experience a losing streak this season, and it won’t before the season is over.
Despite being dropped to a No. 2 seed from an early ACC tournament loss, North Carolina will power its way to a 20th Final Four appearance.
In a redemption story rivaled only by UNC’s 2009 national title run (and perhaps the 2008 Redeem Team), the Tar Heels will meet Villanova once more in the national championship — this time as the underdog.
Against a talented but undersized Wildcat group, the Tar Heels will own the glass en route to a sixth NCAA title.
Brendan Marks, senior writer and Marcus Paige jinxer/Brice Johnson whisperer
Yes, North Carolina looked good in its season finale against Duke, and yes, it won the toughest conference in the country by two games.
There’s clearly reason for optimism, with Isaiah Hicks’ improvement of late and Justin Jackson’s shooting from deep.
But there’s still reason for concern. UNC has struggled against some of the toughest defenses it has faced, and when the Tar Heels can’t outscore their opponents, they haven’t proven an ability to get enough stops to win.
An ACC Tournament title is well within their capabilities, but their inconsistency against top defenses means they might fall short of last season’s heights.
I see North Carolina making it to the Elite Eight and maybe even the Final Four. But by that point, I don’t trust the defense enough to get back to the title game.