Coming off a loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinal, the No. 8 seed North Carolina men's basketball team will face No. 9 seed Marquette in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday.
In a press conference Tuesday, first-year head coach Hubert Davis and his team previewed the matchup against the Golden Eagles, noting that they understand the heightened stakes.
“It’s that time of the year where you can’t have bad games,” graduate forward Brady Manek said.
It's an understanding between the players and their coach that’s been reflected in recent practices.
Junior forward Armando Bacot mentioned how Davis has been harsher when holding the team more accountable for small details — be it setting a screen the correct way or players coming hard off of screens.
“(Davis) has been fired up ever since we figured out who we were playing at the Selection Show,” Bacot said. “His approach has been a lot different this week.”
When asked about the different approach, Davis laughed.
“No, I’m locked in all the time,” he said. “Maybe (Bacot’s) listening more.”
This year's tournament will be a new experience for the team. Manek, along with senior wing Leaky Black, are the team’s only two players who have been to the Big Dance with a packed crowd.
“I told (the team) how crazy it was, for sure,” Black said. “I’m just trying to preach to the guys that it’s one game at a time.”
For Thursday’s game, there’s really just one glaring difference: rebounding. The Golden Eagles have been out-rebounded by a margin of 5.3 boards per game in conference play, ranking them at the bottom of the Big East. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels lead the ACC by grabbing 7.3 more boards per game than their opponents.
Boasting a strong inside game doesn’t come without its drawbacks — UNC has repeatedly displayed subpar perimeter defense, most recently when the Hokies knocked down 45 percent of their triples in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Marquette averaged 8.7 3-pointers made per game on an impressive 37 percent clip in conference play.
Moreover, Marquette’s league-high 8.26 steals per game stems from head coach Shaka Smart’s particularly physical brand of basketball. Davis is aware that struggling with physicality has been a notable theme for the Tar Heels this season.
“If somebody elbows you, then you elbow them back,” Davis said. “If somebody pushes you, you push them back. If somebody kicks you, you kick them back. And so that’s the type of game that you’re going to have to play.”
If UNC defeats Marquette, the team is projected to face No. 1 seed Baylor. Although the Bears aren’t the same group as last year’s national championship team, they still easily pose one of the season’s toughest challenges for North Carolina.
Despite the unfavorable matchup on paper, Davis’ mindset remains unchanged.
“I’ve never been big on seeding,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, in the NCAA Tournament, there’s 68 successful teams. So you’re gonna have to play well against a good team.”
Two days before North Carolina toppled Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Davis assured reporters that the pageantry of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game wouldn’t change his mentality. That Saturday would just be Saturday, and the team would do one job — play a game.
In the upset, four Tar Heels combined for a historic 86 of the team’s 94 points. But less than a week later, that same group shot 3-26 from downtown against Virginia Tech.
For fans, trying to predict what type of UNC team will show up on any given night has seemed impossible at times this season. But in March, that's part of the beauty — no one knows when the next upset will be.
But given their performances this season, if the players are as dialed in as Davis, they have more than enough potential to extend their roller coaster season well into the tournament.
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