March Madness is finally upon us. And the North Carolina Tar Heels are all set to embark on their quest for a seventh national championship when they take on the Iona Gaels in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina will do so as a No. 1 seed for a record 17th time on the strength of an impressive 27-6 campaign that includes a share of the ACC regular-season crown. But do the Tar Heels have what it takes to successfully navigate their way through the 68-team field and cut down the nets in Minneapolis on April 8? You bet they do, and here are five reasons why.
5 Reasons why North Carolina Will Win the 2019 NCAA Tournament
While it's become commonplace for blue-blood programs, loaded with highly-touted freshmen, to take up most of the prime real estate in the preseason rankings, it’s typically the more experienced teams that ultimately advance deep into the NCAA Tournament. Young talent can take a team far in March, but as the old adage goes, experience wins championships. And the Tar Heels have plenty of it. In fact, among all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament, North Carolina is the only team that will feature more than two seniors in the starting lineup.
Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams comprise the trio of senior starters for the Heels. These three players alone account for close to 400 games worth of invaluable experience (249 as starters). More importantly, UNC’s three elder statesmen have 21 NCAA Tournament appearances under their collective belts, led by Luke Maye with 12. Maye also played a pivotal role in North Carolina’s run to the 2017 national championship. His game-winning shot at the buzzer against Kentucky in the regional final will forever remain the stuff of legend among the Tar Heel faithful.
There’s simply no substitute for experience in March. And while younger teams will struggle to contend with the rigors of March Madness, it should be business as usual for a polished North Carolina squad. It’s just icing on the cake that the Tar Heels have a pair of highly-prized freshmen of their own in Coby White and Nassir Little to help boast their tourney stock.
2. Scoring, rebounding and sharing the basketball
There’s no question that scoring offense, rebounds and assists are three of the most important statistical categories used to determine a team’s potential for success. And there is only one team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament field that ranks in the top three nationally in all three all-important categories — the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Only two teams in the country can better the 86.6 points per game the Tar Heels have averaged this season. Only one team can claim more assists per contest than UNC’s 19.9. And North Carolina is second to none in terms of total rebounds with 1,349. Carolina also ranks second nationally in rebound margin and no team is better at capitalizing on second-chance scoring opportunities. Advantage Tar Heels.
3. Talent and depth
North Carolina may not have the most talented roster in this year’s NCAA Tournament. UNC probably isn’t the deepest team either. However, in terms of talent and depth combined, the Tar Heels might be hard to top.
North Carolina’s starting lineup features three players that were All-ACC selections this season. That group is headlined by All-ACC first-teamer Cameron Johnson, who leads the Tar Heels in scoring (16.9 ppg). The senior graduate transfer from Pitt also led the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage this season, connecting on a blistering 46.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Fellow senior, Luke Maye, was named to the All-ACC second team after garnering first-team honors last season. This also marks the second consecutive season in which the former preferred walk-on-turned star has averaged a double-double (14.7 ppg and 10.5 rpg).
Point guard Coby White also garnered second-team All-ACC accolades, along with All-Freshman honors. He ranks second on the team in scoring (16.3 ppg), while leading the Tar Heels in assists (4.2 per game).
Senior guard Kenny Williams and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks round out a talented starting five for North Carolina. Williams is regarded as UNC’s best defender, and if he ever regains his shooting form from last season, he will be a serious threat on the offensive end as well. Brooks is widely considered a standout defender in his own right and someone that has shown consistent improvement throughout the season.
In terms of depth, Roy Williams has at least six players that he can confidently rely on to provide valuable minutes off the bench. Chief among them is highly-touted freshman Nassir Little. The former five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American Game MVP hasn’t quite lived up to his preseason hype, but Little has shown flashes while scoring in double digits on 16 occasions off the bench for the Tar Heels this season.
It’s no secret that North Carolina is most comfortable playing an up-tempo style of basketball. And there simply isn’t a better team in the country when it comes to pushing the ball up the floor at a break-neck pace and putting points on the scoreboard in transition. Most of the time, North Carolina can impose its will on its opponent to dictate a fast-paced contest. That said, the Tar Heels’ ability to adapt to practically any style of basketball has been a major catalyst in their success over the last few years. It’s something that has long been a hallmark of Roy Williams-coached teams, and this year’s UNC squad is no exception.
Fast or slow, zone or man-to-man, big lineups or small lineups — it doesn’t matter. The Tar Heels have proven time and time again that they can make the necessary adjustments to contend with just about anything that is thrown their way. So, while most of the teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament find themselves reeling when the opposition takes them out of their comfort zone, the versatile Tar Heels should continue to thrive.
5. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams
There are many factors that play into a team’s success (or lack thereof) in the NCAA Tournament. But few, if any, of those factors weigh more heavily than coaching. That bodes extremely well for a Tar Heel squad led by a Hall of Fame head coach. Only a handful of coaches in the history of college basketball can match Williams' success on the hardwood, particularly in the month of March.
Between his time at Kansas and now North Carolina, Williams has led his teams to 77 NCAA Tournament victories (second all time), nine Final Fours (fourth), six national title game appearances and three national championships (all with North Carolina). He also lays claim to a fourth national championship as an assistant at UNC in 1982 under the legendary Dean Smith.
Williams clearly knows what it takes to successfully navigate a team through the 68-team gauntlet known as March Madness. And that knowledge, combined with his leadership and experience, will go a long way in helping the Tar Heels cut down the nets for the seventh time in Minneapolis on April 8.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of UNC_Basketball)