The sight of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Tournament is hardly anything new, but their appearance as a No. 8 seed is quite rare. The 2022 NCAA Tournament marks just their fifth-ever inclusion as a No. 8 seed — but the second time in as many seasons — as they get set to take on the Marquette Golden Eagles on Thursday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas.
Speaking of atypical occurrences, North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis is just the fourth to lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament in his first season at the helm, joining Bill Guthridge (1998), Matt Doherty (2001), and his predecessor Roy Williams (2004). Davis is hardly unfamiliar with the Big Dance though, as he was an assistant coach in Chapel Hill from 2012 to 2021 and was on the bench for a pair of national title games — including the national championship win in 2017 — while also helping North Carolina to a 9-3 record in his 12 tournament games as a player.
Though Marquette’s roster boasts just two players with NCAA Tournament experience — both, incidentally, reaching the Big Dance with other teams (Darryl Morsell: Maryland, Kur Kuath: Oklahoma) — head coach Shaka Smart is no stranger to this time of year. Smart has now led VCU, Texas and Marquette to a total of nine NCAA Tournament appearances, including VCU’s trip to the Final Four in 2011. Also notable is Smart’s career 3-0 record against the Tar Heels (all of which came with Texas), with two of the three wins coming in neutral-site meetings.
Thursday marks just the seventh meeting between these two programs, but the second in as many seasons. North Carolina leads the all-time series 4-2, winning all four matchups between 1986 and 2011 while Marquette’s two wins (1977, 2021) bookend the series’ history, the first of which led to quite the memory for the Golden Eagles faithful. Marquette collected its first and only national title in 1977 with a 67-59 win in Atlanta, over... you guessed it, North Carolina. Shifting from the Golden Eagles' first win to their next (and only other) win in 2021, seven of the eight Golden Eagles who played in that game are no longer on Marquette's roster, while five Tar Heels who saw the floor in last year’s meeting will once again be suited up on Thursday.
First Round: No. 9 Marquette Golden Eagles (19-12) vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (24-9)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 4:30 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: Dickies Arena (Fort Worth, Texas)
Spread: North Carolina -3.5
Keys for Marquette
Interestingly, many of North Carolina's strengths coincide with Marquette's struggles, and vice versa for the Golden Eagles' most promising elements. Whereas the Tar Heels are among the nation's best on the glass, the Golden Eagles' minus-4.3 rebound margin per game was the lowest in the Big East and among the bottom 30 nationally. Likewise, Marquette committed the second-most fouls per game among Big East peers, a troubling sign given the Tar Heels' consistently high rates from the free-throw line.
Where the Golden Eagles have thrived, however, is in causing havoc on the defensive side of the ball. Marquette heads into the madness of March with 7.9 steals per game and a 1.28 assist-to-turnover ratio, both the second-best marks in the Big East.
Guard Tyler Kolek — a transfer from George Mason — led the conference (and ranks 11th nationally) with 5.7 assists per game, and his 2.23 assist-to-turnover ratio ever so slightly trailed St. John's guard Posh Alexander (2.27). With North Carolina finding difficulty in limiting turnovers, Marquette's propensity to make plays combined with the Tar Heels' struggles could be an under-the-radar factor to watch down the stretch if the Golden Eagles can keep the game close entering the final minutes.
Keys for North Carolina
This season, one of the Tar Heels' calling cards has been their authority on the boards. North Carolina led the ACC in nearly every rebounding category during the regular season, with a plus-7.7 margin that enters the Big Dance ranked ninth in the nation. Typically, such a strong team performance requires more than just one player's dominance, but junior big man and co-captain Armando Bacot has certainly done his part… and then some. Bacot paced the ACC with 12.5 rebounds per game entering the NCAA Tournament, the third-highest per-game mark in the NCAA behind Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe (15.1) and Utah Valley's Fardaws Aimaq (13.6). And with 412 rebounds in 33 games he sits just four away from the program's single-season record (Brice Johnson, 2015-16: 416 rebounds, 40 games).
That same trio led the nation in double-doubles in the regular season with Tshiebwe and Aimaq tied at the top with 27 and Bacot next in line with 25. By leading the team in scoring (16.5 ppg), field-goal percentage (59.8 percent), rebounds per game (12.5), and blocks (56), Bacot would be the first Tar Heel in school history to stand atop the team in those four categories in consecutive seasons. Even more impressive is that only nine players have ever led the ACC in field-goal percentage and rebounding in the same season, and Bacot would be the first Tar Heel ever to do so.
As good as the Tar Heels have been on the glass, though, they've haven't been as proficient when it comes to turning teams over compared to past years. North Carolina has forced just 10.03 turnovers per game — the lowest mark in the ACC and the 12th-worst in the NCAA — en route to a minus-1.6 turnover margin per game, which ranks UNC in the bottom 20 percent nationally. The Heels counter that, however, by shooting an ACC-best 77.2 percent from the free-throw line this season.
Sophomore guard and co-captain Caleb Love has converted 87.4 percent of his attempts, one of the reasons why it's critical that he remains one of the focal points on offense. The Tar Heels have won all 10 games this season in which Love has scored at least 20 points, and have posted a 14-0 record when Love has recorded at least five assists.
Though this is a lower seed than the Tar Heels are used to receiving, their consistent presence in the NCAA Tournament is one to value, even with a new head coach. The score through 20 minutes will be a key indicator of North Carolina's potential to move on, as the Tar Heels have won all 18 games this season when leading at halftime while losing nine of the 12 games in which they've trailed at the break. If Smart can guide Marquette to disrupting the Tar Heels' offense and jump out in front early, this game could live up to its 9-vs-8 billing.
Prediction: Marquette 74, North Carolina 71
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.