The North Carolina Tar Heels have endured their fair share of struggles and criticisms throughout the 2015-’16 regular season. The preseason No. 1-ranked team in the AP poll, everything about this team,from toughness to cohesiveness, has been called into question. Even the Tar Heels’ two-time national championship-winning coach, Roy Williams, has drawn negative criticism for some of his more questionable coaching decisions throughout the season.
The good news is that March Madness is finally here, and the slate has been wiped clean. The No. 1 seed in the East region, North Carolina is well positioned in the 2016 NCAA Tournament and a legitimate opportunity awaits for the Tar Heels to prove why they were the favorites to cut down the nets before the season began. Here are five reasons why the North Carolina Tar Heels are still the team to beat.
5 Reasons Why North Carolina Will Win the 2016 NCAA Tournament
Consistency has been an issue with North Carolina throughout the season, but a strong showing to close out the regular season and in the ACC Tournament play has this team peaking at the perfect time to make a run at the 2016 national title. The Tar Heels wrapped up the regular season by knocking off hated rival Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time in four years, and in the process, clinching the regular season ACC title. They followed that up by sweeping their way through the ACC Tournament, culminating in a victory over No.4 Virginia and earning their first ACC Tournament title since 2008. Momentum is critical heading into March Madness and North Carolina has it.
Everyone knows experience wins championships, and North Carolina may have the most experienced roster in the entire NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Marcus Paige has started every game in which he has been healthy since he was a freshman. Junior forward Kennedy Meeks has been a starter since midway through his freshman season. Senior big man Brice Johnson is in his second season as a full-time starter, in addition to being a significant contributor in each of his four seasons in Chapel Hill. And sophomore guard/forward Justin Jackson also now has two seasons under his belt as a full-time starter.
In total, the Tar Heels have 511 games worth of experience amongst their starting five. The vast majority of which have come in a starting capacity. A deep bench provides a wealth of experience as well. Experience that should pay dividends in the NCAA Tournament, as there is literally nothing an opposing team can throw at them, that they have not already encountered at some point in the past.
Speaking of a deep bench, the Tar Heels have that as well. UNC returned 12 lettermen and nine of its top 10 scorers from last season’s Sweet 16 squad. The addition of two true freshmen, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, allow the Tar Heels to go as many as 11 deep. There is a drop off in talent, of course. However, UNC’s decline in talent is not as significant as you will find with most of the other schools participating in March Madness.
Junior forward Isaiah Hicks averages close to 10 points per game coming off of the bench and would likely start for most of the other teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Junior point guard, Nate Britt, is more than capable of filling in for Joel Berry or Paige in the backcourt without issue. Senior Joel James is yet another big man that can provide quality minutes in the post. And athletic sophomore guard/forward Theo Pinson may be the best defensive player on the entire team as a reserve player. North Carolina’s depth will almost certainly play a key role in getting them through the rigors of March Madness, especially as a team that prefers an up-tempo style of play.
Collectively, North Carolina boasts one of the most dangerous lineups from top to bottom in the NCAA Tournament. For starters, it’s a lineup that features six former McDonald’s High School All-Americans. But collectively, this is a highly skilled group of players that, despite some inconsistency, can run the floor as well as anyone in the nation and score points at a breakneck pace, which is evident by the 83 points per game the Tar Heels are averaging.
If there is one area in particular where North Carolina can really shine, it is down low. In fact, there may not be a better combination of post players than Johnson, Meeks and Hicks. Johnson has exceeded expectations as the Tar Heels’ leading scorer and rebounder this season, producing 20 double-doubles and being a unanimous selection for All-ACC first team honors. Meeks and Hicks both complement Johnson nicely as opportunistic big men that can run the floor surprisingly well and compete with just about anyone down on the block.
Paige is a player that has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Tar Heels this season. That said, the pre-season All-American remains a double-digit scorer and is fully capable of taking over a game at any moment. Berry is the team’s second-leading scorer and provides UNC with its best option out on the perimeter at the moment, shooting 39 percent beyond the arc. He also is coming off of a strong showing in the ACC Tournament that earned him MVP honors. Jackson is a streaky scorer that performs extremely well in transition and can put up points in bunches when fully engaged. Britt and Pinson both serve as quality role players that can provide solid minutes off of the bench. If even half of the aforementioned players are at, or near, their best over the next few weeks, North Carolina will be extremely tough to beat.
5. 2016 or Bust?
Following this season, the Tar Heels will lose their top two players in Johnson and Paige to graduation. There also is the matter of the still unresolved NCAA investigation into a university-wide academic scandal. It’s possible that forthcoming NCAA sanctions and penalties could impact the basketball team’s postseason eligibility for 2017 and beyond.
Keeping all of that in mind, this could be North Carolina’s best shot at winning another national championship for some time to come. You can bet that Williams knows it, and the players most assuredly know it as well. All logic would tell you that those extenuating circumstances will further add fuel to the fire to help motivate a hungry Carolina team to not only get to the Final Four in Houston but earn the right to cut down the nets when all is said and done.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.