The No. 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels entered the 2017 NCAA Tournament angry after losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament. Since that hiccup, North Carolina has won four straight tournament games en route to their 20th Final Four appearance in program history.
The word “angry” may be understating how UNC is feeling this season. The Heels lost the 2016 National Championship on a buzzer-beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins. To get that far, only to lose by the slimmest of margins in the most heart-breaking fashion, is tough to get over. Yet, UNC has illustrated their true grit and resiliency to overcome last season.
The Heels are beating their opponents by an average margin of 15 points per victory in the tournament. It certainly is not the 30 PPG margin that Kansas was boasting entering their match-up with the Ducks, but it’s formidable nevertheless. However, the numbers are misleading after a 39-point dismantling of No. 16 Texas Southern in the first round.
This is a completely different match-up than Kansas for Oregon. The Jayhawks, like the Ducks, were a 4-guard starting unit. Carolina boasts a 4-forward starting line-up. Their length is undeniable and the average player height for the starters is 6-foot-6.
Entering this tournament, I was concerned about two teams for the Ducks. Louisville was eliminated by Michigan thankfully, then UO slipped past them. North Carolina was the other mismatch that drew my attention. Both teams have unique length and athleticism that will cause problems for anyone. Let’s break down the Tar Heels:
COACHING A LEGACY
Hall-of-Fame coach Roy Williams has been here before, yet it’s always a bit more weighted with the Tar Heels. Anyone following in the footsteps of the great Dean Smith must recognize they are trying to uphold a legacy, not vying to surpass it.
Williams came to North Carolina after 15 incredible years with Kansas (418-101) without a national championship. In 2003, he made the switch from one blue blood program to another. Since then, Williams has won two titles (05, 09) with North Carolina amid a sterling 396-116 overall record (.773 winning percentage).
In 27 years, he has appeared in nine Final Four’s. Oregon has only made Final Four appearances in the first-ever NCAA Tournament of 1939 and this current season.
Regardless, the old coach has run into some problems over the last eight years. UNC has not brought home a title since 2009 and had the 2016 trophy snatched from their grasp at the last second, literally. The pressure is mounting from UNC supporters.
This is the oldest and most experienced team Oregon will face this year. Carolina’s starting five are all upperclassmen. The two big boys down low, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are both seniors. Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson are juniors.
Not only are they battled-tested, but they have incredible length and individual wingspans. The amount of defections they cause in the passing lanes changes games. Yet, they only averaged 3.0 blocks per game opposed to Oregon’s 6.5 BPG.
UNC was the favorite to win the title from the start of the season. Most say, when they play their best basketball there is no team better on the planet. Isn’t that what people were saying about Kansas?
Watching Carolina from afar this season, the talent is abundant like every other year. It is North Carolina, they aren't fielding 2-star players. Yet, my one question has been defensive effort and consistency. In fact, this team scored 100 points and lost to Kentucky earlier in the season, 103-100. The Wildcats also gave UNC all they could handle last weekend.
Nobody is questioning their experience or talent, but someone should monitor their consistency. The Heels enter the Final Four with a record of 31-7. They finished the ACC regular season in first place with a record of 14-4. But in their seven losses, UNC fell by an average margin of 10 points per loss. When they started bad, they finished worse.
Unlike Kansas, North Carolina’s foundation is built around long, athletic big men who have the versatility to spread the floor. The Heels play a much slower game than KU’s uptempo offense, yet UNC averaged two more points (85 PPG) per game than KU (83 PPG) in 2016-17. This illustrates how efficient and opportunistic UNC is on the offensive glass.
A problem for Oregon this season was allowing too many second-chance points, especially in the second half of their Pac-12 run. Head coach Dana Altman has cleaned it up since the tournament started, but this is one of those match-ups where Chris Boucher would have been the x-factor. With Boucher healthy, Oregon rolls past UNC. Without their senior on the floor, it will be a tough task provided Carolina’s length.
Meeks is the man down low, averaging 12.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.1 APG and 1.2 BPG in 24.2 minutes per game. He is shooting 54 percent from the floor this season. At times, Meeks will have lapses on both ends. For 6-foot-10, he should be garnering more than a block per night. The UNC forward shoots 63 percent from the charity stripe.
The Charlotte native can become passive on offense and lethargic on defense. The UNC big man also struggles with constant foul trouble. He shows a lack of discipline when the fouls begin to stack up. Nevertheless, he’s a force when rolling. If he is on from the start, it will be a long day for the Ducks.
Hicks is somewhat similar to Meeks. For the season, the senior forward averaged 12.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.4 APG and 0.7 BPG in 23.2 MPG over 37 games played. The Oxford, NC native is shooting a robust 60 percent from the floor and 79 percent from the line. UO can not afford to foul this 6-foot-9 big man. However, he is not considered a sturdy defensive player.
A STAR OF STARS
For Oregon, there is nothing like playing the lead candidates for National Player of the Year in back-to-back games. First, it was Frank Mason III and now it’s Justin Jackson. The 6-foot-8 forward is having a brilliant season, amassing 18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 2.8 APG in 31.7 MPG over 38 games played.
He is match-up nightmare for most in the country and has a bright NBA career that is trying to blind him this season. The All-American has an incredible wingspan and takes up tons of space on defense. He is a 48 percent shooter from the field and 38 percent from downtown.
Dillon Brooks will draw defensive duty. Much like his match-up with super freshman Josh Jackson, Brooks needs to force Jackson into uncomfortable situations without allowing him to penetrate the paint. It will be a tall task, but Brooks is up for it.
LENGTH IN NUMBERS
Theo Pinson is North Carolina’s best defender. It will be interesting to see who the 6-foot-6 forward defends. My guess is it will by Tyler Dorsey. Pinson has two inches on the 6-foot-4 LA kid, which could pose some difficulty for the hottest Duck on the planet. Nobody may be able to contain Mr. March, but Pinson’s reach and wingspan could cause deflections or turnovers in North Carolina’s favor.
As mentioned, UNC’s starting five is on average 6-foot-6. The lone player under the average is the starting point guard, Berry. Nevertheless, it is Luke Maye off the bench that provides the biggest spark for the Tar Heels. The 6-foot-8 sophomore drilled the game-winning bucket against No. 2 Kentucky in their regional final.
Maye enters the Final Four averaging 5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 1.2 APG in just 14.4 minutes per game over 33 appearances in 2016-17. However, it was his career-high 17 points off the bench that carried UNC to victory in their last ballgame.
Over his last four, Maye is amassing 12.5 points per game during the tournament. He’s the greatest threat off the UNC sideline and will be instant-offense upon entry. His size could cause issues for Oregon, but I would imagine Dylan Ennis defending the North Carolina native. Oregon’s senior guard stifled 6-foot-8 Kansas guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk during the Midwest Regional Final.
North Carolina had nine blocked shots in their last game against the Wildcats. Yet, the effort is not there on a consistent basis. UK forces the issue, driving the lane constantly which influences defenders to make decisions.
Oregon is more opportunistic, allowing the game to unfold and then exploiting weaknesses of their opponent on individual possessions. The Ducks rely more on perimeter shooting than Kentucky and it will show. The Wildcats would have been the better match-up for Oregon, but at this point, UO doesn’t care who they play. If the Ducks stay true to their course, destiny awaits them in Glendale.
Next up for No. 3 Oregon (33-5) is No. 1 North Carolina (31-7) in the 2017 Final Four. Tip is set for 5:49 p.m. PT from the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona on Saturday. UO is seeking their first title appearance in 78 years. The game will be televised by CBS.