Justin Jackson and the Tar Heels could make it back to the national title game
The departures of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson led many to believe that North Carolina would take a step backwards in 2016-17. Fortunately, that has not been the case. The Tar Heels won their second consecutive outright ACC regular season championship, and once again find themselves well positioned as a No. 1 seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
The stage is set for the Tar Heels to begin their quest through the gauntlet that is March Madness, in search of redemption following last year’s heart-wrenching loss to Villanova in the championship game. In the immortal words of the greatest Tar Heel of them all, “The ceiling is the roof” for a North Carolina team that appears to have everything in place to make another run at a national championship in 2017. Here are five reasons why the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets in Glendale, Arizona.
5 Reasons Why North Carolina Will Win the 2017 NCAA Tournament
1. Talent and Balance
The 2016-17 North Carolina roster may not be chock-full of future NBA lottery picks. But the Tar Heels do feature six former McDonald’s High School All-Americans. And collectively, boast one of the most dangerous and balanced lineups in the NCAA Tournament. A roster full of highly skilled athletes that can run the floor as well as anyone in the nation and score points at a breakneck pace, which is evident by the 85 points per game they are averaging entering Friday’s first round game against Texas Southern.
A ineup that features four players averaging 12 points or more per game is led by ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson (18 ppg). Jackson can put up points in bunches when fully engaged and may be the most dynamic player in the country in transition. He has developed into a true weapon from three-point range as well, improving to 38 percent this season from beyond the arc.
Jackson may have the most impressive resume, but combo guard Joel Berry II is the engine that makes this team run. Berry is rock-solid in every facet of the game and provides UNC with its best option on the perimeter (42 percent from 3-point range). Junior Theo Pinson and senior Nate Britt round out a star-studded backcourt. Both Pinson and Britt struggle shooting the basketball at times, but typically make up for it with stellar play on the defensive end.
North Carolina may actually shine brightest down low. In fact, there may not be a better corps of collective post players in the entire Tournament than Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye. Meeks and Hicks are seasoned big men that can compete with anyone down on the block. Freshman Tony Bradley has shown flashes of greatness coming off of the bench. And sophomore Luke Maye also provides solid re-enforcement in a reserve role with the ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor.
Experience wins championships, and North Carolina has plenty of it. The Tar Heels are one of just a small group of contenders in this year’s tournament to feature five (two seniors, three juniors) in their starting five. And there is not another team competing in March that can match the wealth of actual game and Tournament experience accumulated by this group. In total, the North Carolina starting five has 576 career games under its collective belt – 334 of those games have come in a starting capacity.
Meeks, a senior, and Jackson, a junior, have both been fixtures in the starting lineup since their freshman year. Junior Joel Berry II is in his second season as a full-time starter. Senior big man Isaiah Hicks, senior Nate Britt and junior Theo Pinson all have starting experience and have been significant contributors since first setting foot in Chapel Hill. Experience helped the Tar Heels to the national title game last year, and they have even more this time around. It should pay big dividends, as Carolina will be well prepared for anything that comes its way.
3. Rebounds, Rebounds, Rebounds
Rebounding is one of the most critical components to a team’s success. And no other team in this year’s Tournament attacks the glass better than North Carolina. The Tar Heels led the nation in total rebounds (1,479) and rebounding margin (12.7 per game). Perhaps more importantly, UNC led the nation in offensive rebounding (15.8 per game), consistently making the most of second-chance scoring opportunities as a result.
While Meeks leads the way with 9.1 rebounds per game, this is not a team that relies solely on one or two players to clean up on the glass. It is truly a collective effort that allows the Tar Heels to dominate on the boards. Rebounding should provide North Carolina with a significant advantage over its opposition throughout March Madness.
4. Roy Williams
It never hurts to have a Hall of Fame coach roaming the sidelines in March, and the Tar Heels have exactly that. This will be Williams’ 27th NCAA Tournament appearance, a time of year when he has enjoyed considerable success. The 66-year-old head coach certainly knows exactly what it takes to lead a team to a national title.
Between his time at Kansas and now North Carolina, Williams has led his teams to 70 Tournament wins, eight Final Fours, five championship game appearances and two national championships (both with the Tar Heels). He also won a national title in 1982 as an assistant at UNC under the legendary Dean Smith. Mike Krzyzewski aside, there isn’t another coach in the 2017 Tournament better equipped to lead his team through the rigors of March Madness than Williams.
One of the biggest reasons North Carolina was able to successfully navigate its way through a rigorous schedule, in the most competitive conference in the nation, is its versatility. While the Tar Heels tend to thrive in an up-tempo format, they have proven that they are well equipped to adapt to any style of basketball. Fast or slow, zone or man-to-man, it really doesn’t matter. The Tar Heels can beat you inside with their outstanding front court, they can beat you outside on the perimeter. And slashers Jackson, Berry and Pinson can beat you from anywhere on the floor.
Most teams will struggle with matchup issues at some point during this Tournament. That should not be the case for a North Carolina team that can excel in a variety of ways against any style of basketball. There are certainly teams with enough talent to beat them, particularly if the Tar Heels have one of their rare meltdown games like we saw against Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. However, as long as the shots are falling, North Carolina has the flexibility and firepower to beat any team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Justin Jackson photo courtesy of Getty Images)