UNC Now: Tar Heels face tough NCAA road to accomplish 'big-time dreams'

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2014 

North Carolina knew it was in the NCAA tournament but the wait had to be tense, nonetheless. The Tar Heels were one of the final teams announced on CBS during the tournament selection show, and when their name popped on the screen it was soon followed by that of a team that has been playing with a sense of desperation in recent weeks.

And playing teams that willed their way into the tournament field can be an unenviable task. UNC, the No. 6 seed in the East region, will open Friday in San Antonio against No. 11 Providence.

The Friars probably had to reach the Big East tournament championship game to receive an NCAA bid. They did that one better, though, and defeated Creighton in the game.

Providence labored through an up and down, inconsistent season until mid-February. Since losing against Georgetown on Feb. 10, the Friars have won seven of nine games, with the only losses coming against Villanova, in double overtime, and Creighton.

If the Tar Heels win Friday, they will likely play against Iowa State, the third seed and the Big 12 tournament champion, in the round of 32. Getting past the Friars, though, is far from a given.

Providence lacks depth – its five starters all average at least 30 minutes per game – but the Friars don’t necessarily need a lot of it given their slow pace of play. Providence ranks 277th nationally in possessions per 40 minutes, and that could be a bad omen for UNC.

The Tar Heels, who prefer an up-and-down, transition-oriented game, have struggled at times against slower-paced teams. During their 1-4 start in ACC play – their worst in school history – the Tar Heels lost against Miami, Syracuse and Virginia, all of which are known for playing a slower, deliberate pace on offense.

More recently, UNC lost on Friday in the ACC tournament against Pittsburgh, which also prefers a slower tempo. The Panthers led the Tar Heels by 20 points with about 71/2 minutes to play in that game, but UNC used a full-court trap to force turnovers that allowed the Tar Heels a chance late.

Controlling the pace will be important for the Tar Heels against Providence. Also important: free throw shooting.

If UNC finds itself in a close game, Providence would have a significant statistical advantage at the free throw line. The Friars rank second nationally in free throw shooting, and they made 23 of their 26 attempts during their 65-58 victory against Creighton.

UNC is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Tar Heels are shooting 62.5 percent from the line, and they’ve consistently been one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country.

Poor free throw shooting directly led to losses against Belmont, UAB and Texas.

Defensively, Providence uses a mix of man-to-man and 2-3 zone, which could be effective against the Tar Heels if they’re not shooting well from the perimeter. Neither UNC nor Providence is known for its 3-point shooting, but the Friars have an advantage on the perimeter, where they have three players who are shooting at least 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

UNC and Providence might most resemble each other when it comes to rebounding. Both lead their conferences in offensive rebounding percentage – UNC ranks 17th nationally in that category, and Providence is 49th – but UNC has struggled to rebound effectively in its past two games.

The Friars, meanwhile, enter the tournament playing as well as they have all season. If UNC advancesFriday, it would set up another game against a team that won its conference – either 14th-seeded N.C. Central, which won the MEAC, or Iowa State, which defeated Kansas on its way to beating Baylor in the Big 12 tournament championship game.

And if UNC advances out of its pod to the East Regional in New York City then Villanova, the No. 2 seed in the region, could be waiting in the Sweet 16. Virginia, which defeated Duke in the ACC tournament championship game on Sunday, is the No. 1 seed in the East, and UNC could play the Cavaliers with a chance at the Final Four on the line.

The last time a team seeded sixth reached the Final Four was in 1992, when Michigan did it. Two No. 6 seeds have won national championships: Kansas in 1988 and N.C. State in 1983.

“We have had some outstanding wins this year, both in and out of league play, over teams that received some very high seeds in the field,” UNC coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “So we know we are capable. But we must play better than we have over the last two weeks if we want to reach our big-time dreams.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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