Sometimes the headline speaks for itself: The answers to these questions will determine whether North Carolina makes it back to the Final Four for the second consecutive season. Let’s get to them:
1. Can the Tar Heels defend at a consistently high level against a great offense?
This question matters because UNC is likely going to have to defeat a great offensive team to get out of the South Region. The bottom half of the region is loaded with strong offensive teams: No. 3 seed UCLA is third nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
No. 11 Wake Forest, which has to advance through a play-in game, is eighth. No. 10 Wichita State is 12th, and No. 2 Kentucky is 14th in offensive efficiency. That’s four top-15 offensive teams in one half of a bracket, and the Tar Heels are likely going to have to play one of them.
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It’s very likely that UNC, if it advances to the regional final, would face either UCLA or Kentucky with a trip to the Final Four at stake. We saw what happened when the Tar Heels played against Kentucky back in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. Malik Monk scored 47 points in Kentucky’s 103-100 victory.
One of the knocks against UNC entering the NCAA tournament is that it hasn’t fared well defensively against the best offensive teams it has faced. That’s not entirely true, though. Oklahoma State is the best offensive team in the country, according to kenpom, and UNC handled the Cowboys easily in the Maui Invitational in November.
And UNC did a nice job defensively against Duke, too, when the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill earlier this month. It was a different story against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals, but that game turned when Joel Berry, UNC’s junior point guard, collected his fourth foul.
If Berry is a little more disciplined and stays out of foul trouble (or if the game is officiated a bit differently), then maybe the Tar Heels hold on to a lead that, twice, was as wide as 13 points. But they didn’t hold that lead, in large part because they couldn’t stop Duke in the final 15 minutes.
Among UNC’s four worst defensive games of the season, according to kenpom, two were against Duke. The worst was against Kentucky. The Tar Heels lost all three of those games. (The other game among those four was the home victory against Pittsburgh – a game UNC nearly lost.)
UNC coach Roy Williams meets with reporters on Tuesday for his pre-tournament discussion. Prepare to hear a lot about how much better the Tar Heels need to defend. There’s a reason why Williams emphasizes this so much. It’ll be especially important the farther UNC advances.
2. Can UNC limit its opponent’s 3-point shooting?
Thought about including this in the general discussion above about defense, but this really deserves its own section. There are a couple of questions within the question to consider, though: One, how much can any team’s defense really influence the effectiveness of its opponent’s 3-point shooting?
And, second, is UNC’s 3-point defense really as suspect as it sometimes appears, or is that more of a mirage because of an opponent’s emphasis on shooting the 3, given UNC’s size and talent on the interior? There’s little question that teams emphasize the 3 against UNC. The Tar Heels’ opponents, according to kenpom.com, have scored 33.8 percent of their points against UNC on 3s.
Only five NCAA tournament teams are giving up a greater percentage of their points on 3-pointers. Again, though, that makes sense because UNC is strong on the interior, where Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley all present match-up problems for opponents.
And so it’s understandable that teams build their game-plans around taking, and making, 3-pointers. Even so, UNC also seems to have worse luck than other teams in limiting opponents on the perimeter. Nine times this season, UNC’s opponent made at least 40 percent of its 3s. UNC lost five of those games.
For the sake of comparison, Duke allowed only four teams to make at least 40 percent of their 3s. It happened six times against Louisville, seven times against Notre Dame, Virginia and Miami and eight times against Florida State.
In other words, among the best teams in the ACC, UNC has been the worst at consistently stopping other teams from making at least 40 percent of their 3s. In the ACC overall, the Tar Heels rank in the middle.
Probably not coincidentally, the conference’s worst teams also fared poorly at limiting their opponents on the perimeter. N.C. State’s opponents, for instance, made at least 40 percent of their 3s 14 times. It happened 11 times each against Clemson, Pitt and Boston College.
That suggests that perimeter defense, while incorporating some aspects of luck, is hardly all based in luck. The ACC’s other top teams – Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami, Florida State – all allowed opponents fewer strong shooting performances than UNC did.
And so the Tar Heels have to keep other teams from generating momentum on the perimeter.
3. Will Justin Jackson return to form?
This question is probably less important than the two above it, because as good as Jackson has been this season, it has to be only a matter of time before he returns to performing like he did the vast majority of the season. Right?
Jackson earned ACC Player of the Year honors because he was UNC’s best, most consistent player throughout the season, and because he helped lead the Tar Heels to the ACC regular-season championship by two full games. And yet people still probably didn’t appreciate Jackson.
Some of his numbers, after all, don’t compare favorably to other player of the year candidates in the ACC. What the stat-heads miss, though, is that only part of Jackson’s game (and only part of anyone’s game) can be quantified. Even when he’s not scoring, Jackson is drawing defensive attention.
His movement, whether it’s with or without the ball, often dictates the flow of the Tar Heels’ offense. But for UNC to make the Final Four, Jackson has to play better in the tournament than he has in UNC’s past four games, in which he’s made just 20 of his 60 attempts from the field.
After the defeat against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals, Jackson acknowledged that he forced shots, and that he was pressing, to use his word, to be The Guy. Part of that is understandable. This is the time of the year, after all, when the pressure is magnified.
Now it will only grow from here. Jackson this season has attempted to block out the noise. He’s off Twitter. He said he limits his social media consumption. He said he tries to lose himself in his team, his family and his friends.
Unquestionably, though, Jackson understands his role. For UNC to be at its best, he needs to be at his.
4. Can UNC avoid foul trouble?
You saw what happened after Berry committed his fourth foul against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals. Goes without saying, too, that Isaiah Hicks needs to stay on the court as much as possible. While Jackson has been the Tar Heels’ most consistently good player, Berry is arguably UNC’s most important player.
He’s most in charge of running the offense, and defensively Berry often provides the inspiration that energizes his teammates. Berry has committed four fouls only four times this season. UNC lost three of those games, though, including the one against Kentucky, in which Berry fouled out late. Hicks’ quest to avoid foul trouble, meanwhile, has been well documented.
But as old of a story as that it is, it doesn’t make it any less important. In games in which Hicks commits four fouls or more, UNC is 9-5. When Hicks commits three fouls or fewer, the Tar Heels are 18-1. Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s some sort of weird statistical anomaly. Or maybe UNC is really just that much better with Hicks consistently on the floor, out of foul trouble.
5. Will the Tar Heels’ rebounding dominance continue?
They’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country but when UNC doesn’t rebound well, it’s vulnerable. UNC has lost five of its six worst offensive rebounding games, according to kenpom.
Those six games: at Virginia, at Indiana, vs. Kentucky, at Miami, at Duke. In all of them, UNC rebounded 31.2 percent of its misses or fewer, according to kenpom. For the season overall, meanwhile, the Tar Heels are rebounding 42 percent of their missed shots.
When UNC hits its offensive rebounding average (again: 42 percent) it has been virtually unbeatable. The Tar Heels have lost only once when they’ve done that, and that was against Duke last Friday in the ACC tournament semifinals. UNC rebounded 44.9 percent of its misses in defeat.
Then again, there were a lot of rebounding opportunities available, given how poorly the Tar Heels shot in the second half. The good news for UNC: There aren’t a lot of great defensive rebounding teams in its region, and so this should remain a significant advantage for the Tar Heels as long as they advance throughout the bracket.
So there you have it. We’ll check back and see how the Tar Heels answered these questions.