Marcus Paige had barely had time to begin celebrating North Carolina’s ACC tournament championship game victory against Virginia on Saturday night when he thought ahead to the future, to the journey ahead of the Tar Heels.
“We’re not done yet,” Paige said after the Tar Heels’ 61-57 victory on Saturday night.
The Tar Heels walked out of the Verizon Center amid a jubilant, emotional scene after winning UNC’s first ACC tournament since 2008. Then UNC on Sunday was rewarded with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That was the good news for the Tar Heels.
The bad? They might face the most difficult path to Houston, and to the Final Four, of any No. 1 seed. UNC is the top seed in the East Region, which arguably includes a greater number of formidable teams than any of the other three regions.
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The Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament run will begin on Thursday at the PNC Arena in Raleigh at 7:20 pm on TBS against either Florida Gulf Coast or Fairleigh Dickinson, which will play each other on Tuesday in a tournament play-in game. From there, though, the bracket could become challenging in a hurry.
UNC could play a second-round game on Saturday against No. 9-seed Providence, which is led by senior guard Kris Dunn, a unanimous All-Big East first-team selection. Dunn would be among the best perimeter players the Tar Heels would have faced this season.
Still, UNC will be the overwhelming favorite to advance from Raleigh to the East Regional semifinals in Philadelphia. Fourth-seeded Kentucky, the SEC champion, could await UNC there. Or it could be Indiana, the No. 5 seed. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season championship by two games.
The bottom half of the East appears difficult, too, with No. 2 Xavier, No. 3 West Virginia and sixth-seeded Notre Dame, which UNC dominated during a 71-47 victory in the ACC tournament semifinals. The East Region’s top four seeds – UNC, Xavier, West Virginia and Kentucky – might be the strongest of any region.
They are the strongest, according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. Pomeroy, the college basketball statistician who runs the popular kenpom.com website, has the East’s top five seeds among the top 15 teams in the country in his data-generated national rankings.
UNC is No. 4 in Pomeroy’s rankings, West Virginia No. 6, Kentucky No. 8, Indiana No. 14 and Xavier No. 15. No other region has more than three top-15 teams in the Pomeroy rankings. At the top, then, the East looks like the most difficult region in the tournament.
Based on how it played in the ACC tournament, though, UNC should be up for the challenge. After months of attempting to fulfill their considerable potential the Tar Heels appear closer to reaching it than they have at any point.
They were dominant for long stretches in victories against Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, and then beat Virginia at its own slow-it-down, grind-it-out game during the ACC championship on Saturday night. UNC thrived especially on defense during the league tournament.
“To win playing their game, in the 50s and 60s – we talk about being able to win in the 90s and being able to win in the 50s,” Paige said on Saturday night. “We were able to do that today by gritting it out, being tough defensively.”
That will have to carry over in the NCAA tournament if UNC is to win the East. Kentucky leads the nation in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, and could face UNC in the Sweet 16. If the Wildcats don’t make it there, Indiana might – and the Hoosiers excel offensively, too.
Kentucky, Indiana, Xavier, West Virginia and Notre Dame all rank among the 25 most efficient offensive teams in the country, according to kenpom. All of them would challenge the Tar Heels’ new-found defensive excellence.
The Tar Heels, who are the NCAA tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, are a No. 1 seed for the 15th time in school history. The last time they were a top seed was in 2012, when they reached the Midwest Regional final before losing against Kansas.
Kendall Marshall, the point guard who rewrote the school records for assists, didn’t play in that game after he suffered a broken wrist in a second round victory against Creighton. UNC was last a No. 1 in the East in 2008, when it began the tournament in Raleigh – just like it will this season.
A little more than a week ago it was questionable whether the Tar Heels would begin the tournament in Raleigh. The NCAA tournament selection committee rewards higher seeds with opening-round games at sites in close proximity to their campus, and some wondered whether UNC had done enough.
A victory at Duke to end the regular season, followed by the Tar Heels’ run through the ACC tournament, removed all doubt about where the Tar Heels would begin the NCAA tournament. Now the question is where they’ll end it.
Paige and his teammates on Saturday night spoke of unfinished business, and about how the ACC tournament championship represented the completion of the team’s second goal. The first was to win the ACC regular-season championship, which UNC accomplished with the victory at Duke.
The final goal? That’s simple enough.
“A national championship,” Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, said on Saturday night.
To make it there, and to the Final Four in Houston, UNC will first have to survive what might be the most difficult region in the NCAA tournament.