Entering the NCAA Tournament, you could be forgiven for assuming the North Carolina men’s basketball team wouldn’t be here. But here they are: preparing for a trip to Philadelphia, two wins away from earning the program its first Final Four berth since 2017.
After UNC held off a comeback from No. 1 seed Baylor on Saturday and No. 2 seed Kentucky fell to St. Peter’s in the opening round, the Tar Heels have a legitimate chance to represent the East Region in the Final Four.
But, as last weekend’s results showed, nothing is a given in March.
The first step is a bout on Friday with fellow blue-blood and No. 4 seed UCLA — a team UNC was slated to face in December before the game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols in the Bruins’ program.
Here are three factors the Tar Heels need to defeat UCLA and earn a trip to the Elite Eight.
Guards stepping up
In a first-round win over Marquette, it was sophomore Caleb Love — who finished with 23 points and knocked down 6-13 from beyond the arc. Against Baylor, it was fellow sophomore RJ Davis — who played all 45 minutes of the contest, knocked down 30 points and led the Tar Heels offense after Love fouled out.
For North Carolina to control the game on Friday, one of these two will need to step up. Production from junior big Armando Bacot — if he isn’t in foul trouble — has been a given this year. The difference between North Carolina’s best and worst outcomes this season has come from its guard play.
Both Love and Davis have made improvements in efficiency toward the end of the season. If the tournament run is going to continue, one of them has to be an X-factor in Philadelphia.
Avoid foul trouble
North Carolina does not have much in the way of depth and certainly does not have the bench platoon it had last year. The rotation has hovered around seven players for most of the year — Davis, Love, Bacot, senior Leaky Black and graduate Brady Manek, with Puff Johnson and Dontrez Styles coming off the bench. But in practice, the starting five take the vast majority of minutes.
For the first 30 minutes against Baylor, North Carolina was clearly the better team — even expanding its lead to a game-high 25 points. But after Manek was ejected for a flagrant-2 foul and Love fouled out, the wheels fell off, and a win looked unlikely heading into overtime.
The Tar Heels can’t expect another miracle to happen against the Bruins, who are ranked in the top 15 of both adjusted offense and defense in the KenPom rankings. North Carolina’s short bench was made obvious against the Bears, and the Tar Heels will have to avoid foul trouble to keep their run going.
Battle the battle-tested
After making a long-shot Final Four run of their own last year, the Bruins have as much NCAA Tournament experience of any team in the Sweet 16. UCLA only has two true first-years listed on its roster. The Bruins have been here before. UNC hasn’t.
Black is the only player on North Carolina’s roster to play in the Sweet 16 in Carolina Blue. Despite this, the Tar Heels have had plenty of tight contests heading into Friday — including the aforementioned Baylor defeat and a regular-season win over Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
UNC has passed difficult tests already this season and showed that, at its very best, the team is capable of competing on college basketball’s biggest stages.
In order to beat the Bruins and get one step closer to the biggest stage the sport has to offer, the Tar Heels will have to prove, once again, that they are capable of stepping up and playing their best game when the lights are the brightest.
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