March Madness is officially underway. But there is one traditional college basketball powerhouse that seems to be getting overlooked by bracket fillers and prognosticators alike. That team would be the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. Despite the fact that North Carolina has played in back-to-back national title games, the number of brackets featuring North Carolina as a Final Four participant in this year’s NCAA Tournament appear to be few and far between. And I have yet to see anyone pick the No. 2-seeded Tar Heels to repeat as national champions.
It’s not completely without justification. This year’s squad has lost 10 games, and they haven’t exactly been the model of consistency. Then again, when you look closely at the 68 teams in this year’s tournament field, there are very few teams that haven’t had issues. So, while there are a few compelling arguments that can be made as to why the Tar Heels won’t be able to successfully defend their title, there are some pretty convincing reasons to like their chances as well. Here are five such reasons the North Carolina Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets again, this time in San Antonio.
5 Reasons Why North Carolina Will Win the 2018 NCAA Tournament
1. Why not North Carolina?
Despite the Tar Heels’ less than glowing 25-10 record, their resume is among the best in the field. They are certainly the most tested team in this year’s tournament after playing the nation’s toughest schedule. North Carolina also has 14 quadrant 1 victories to its credit on the season, more than any other team competing in March Madness.
This year’s NCAA Tournament also looks to be as wide open as any in recent memory. No. 1 seeds Virginia, Villanova, Kansas and Xavier are all great teams, but none of them really compare favorably to some of the truly dominant teams that we have seen as top seeds in past tournaments. And the gap from top to bottom doesn’t seem to be as wide it has been either. We have all witnessed plenty of teams make deep runs in March with much worse resumes and far less talent than the defending national champions. So, why not North Carolina?
All five of the players in North Carolina’s starting lineup average double digits in scoring. But first-team All-ACC performers Joel Berry II and Luke Maye are clearly the standouts. Berry, a senior point guard, enters this year’s NCAA Tournament averaging a career-best 17.1 points per game and is once again the engine that drives this team. Maye is a Wooden Award Finalist and also was named the ACC’s Most Improved Player this season. The junior forward heads into March Madness averaging a double-double (17.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and hitting 44 percent of his shots from three-point range.
More importantly, Berry II and Maye boast a postseason resume that is unmatched by any other starting duo in this year’s 68-team field. It’s fair to say that even among all the talent lost from last years’ championship team, these two were the primary catalysts in North Carolina’s run to the national title in 2017. Maye played a huge role in propelling the Tar Heels to the Final Four. He not only hit the game-winning shot against Kentucky to send UNC to the Final Four, he earned MOP honors for the entire South Region. Berry II was named Most Outstanding Player in last year’s Final Four, also earning a spot on the All-Final Four team for the second year in a row. Additionally, Berry II is the first player since Bill Walton in 1972-73 to score 20 or more points in consecutive national championship games.
Rounding out the Tar Heels’ talented starting five are senior Theo Pinson (10.3 ppg), senior Cameron Johnson (12.7 ppg) and junior Kenny Williams (11.4 ppg/40 percent 3-point shooter). All three of these players have taken on a starring role for the Heels at various times this season. Most notably, Pinson, who really elevated his game during North Carolina’s recent run to the championship game of the ACC Tournament. The do-it-all forward/guard combo leads the team in assists, is second in rebounding, and is widely considered the Tar Heels’ best defender.
Super teams loaded with high-profile underclassmen are fun to follow as the season progresses. But they rarely make a lot of noise when tournament time rolls around. It’s typically a team comprised of upperclassmen that does the most damage in March. That’s because there is no substitute for experience. And North Carolina once again has plenty of it.
The Tar Heel starters, all of whom are upperclassmen, have 553 combined games of experience between them. More than half (310) of those games have come in a starting capacity. Perhaps more importantly, this team has a wealth of NCAA Tournament experience that they can draw from. The UNC roster features eight players that have made an appearance in the Big Dance. Berry, Luke and Pinson alone have played in 40 combined NCAA Tournament games during their UNC careers. Of course, coaching experience matters as well, and Roy Williams (above, right) has that in spades. There may not be a team in the 68-team field that can match Carolina’s experience, particularly in the month of March.
4. No one attacks the glass better than Carolina
Rebounds played an integral part in North Carolina’s magical run to the national championship last year. But after losing the top four rebounders from that championship squad, that aspect appeared as it was going to be a potential weakness for the Tar Heels heading into the season. Fortunately, that has not been the case. In fact, North Carolina once again leads the nation in rebounding heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament (42.49 per game). The Tar Heels rank second nationally in rebound margin (10.0 per game), and fourth in the country in offensive rebounds (14.06 per game).
Luke Maye’s 10.1 rebounds per game lead the way for Carolina. However, a smaller lineup has relied heavily on a concerted team effort to dominate the boards. Even against much bigger opponents, North Carolina rarely loses the rebounding battle. And this team thrives off second-chance opportunities. The Tar Heels’ prowess on the glass should provide a significant advantage throughout March Madness. It might even be enough for history to repeat itself.
Roy Williams will be making his 28th appearance as a head coach in the NCAA Tournament. And his track record in the Big Dance clearly speaks for itself. Williams ranks second all-time among head coaches with 76 NCAA Tournament victories, fourth with nine Final Four appearances, and he has won three national championships (all with North Carolina). Williams also can claim a fourth national title as an assistant coach under the legendary Dean Smith in 1982.
Aside from Mike Krzyzewski, no head coach in this year’s tournament is more accomplished or experienced in the month of March than Williams. And Coach K doesn’t even come close to matching Williams’ success in the last two NCAA Tournaments (11-1 record). The Hall of Fame coach obviously knows exactly what it takes to lead a team through the rigors of March Madness. His tutelage will go a long way in helping North Carolina navigate its way through the 68-team gauntlet in 2018.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati, courtesy of goheels.com)