If North Carolina is to make it back to the Final Four, and back to the final Monday night of the season for the second consecutive year, the Tar Heels are going to have to make it out of a region that includes Kentucky and UCLA.
The Tar Heels, who won the ACC regular-season championship by two games, are the No. 1 seed in the South. They play around 4 p.m. on Friday (TNT) in Greensville, S.C., against Texas Southern, a No. 16 seed from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
If UNC wins that game – and no No. 1 seed has ever lost against a No. 16 seed – then the Tar Heels would either play against No. 8 seed Arkansas or No. 9 Seton Hall on Sunday. Butler is the No. 4 seed in UNC’s region; Minnesota the No. 5. In the bottom half, Kentucky is the No. 2, UCLA the No. 3.
Let’s get to it: A look at all things South Region …
UNC is a No. 1 seed, after all. The Tar Heels last week appeared to be among the favorites to be a No. 1, but Duke’s run through Brooklyn, where the Blue Devils beat UNC on their way to winning the ACC tournament, created a debate about whether Duke would (and should) jump the Tar Heels for a top seed.
As it turned out, that debate was more media-generated noise than anything based in reality. Mark Hollis, the chair of the NCAA Division I Selection Committee, said during the selection show on Sunday that Duke was never considered for a top seed, and that it jumped from a No. 4 to a No. 2.
So that was that: UNC remained on the top seed line, along with Villanova and Kansas.
At the very top, the South might be the most difficult region of all. UNC, Kentucky and UCLA are all legitimate Final Four contenders, and nobody would be surprised if any one of those teams makes it out of the region and winds up in Phoenix.
Also, consider the South the College Basketball Royalty Bracket. UNC (19), UCLA (18) and Kentucky (17) rank 1-2-3 in all-time Final Four appearances. Those three programs have also combined for 24 national championships.
UNC HAS TO LIKE:
That the top half of the bracket is relatively manageable. Look, this is the NCAA tournament. There’s no easy road anywhere. But in the top half of the bracket, the Tar Heels might be paired with the “easiest” No. 4 and No. 5 seeds of any region, with Butler and Minnesota.
Again: That doesn’t mean those teams aren’t capable of beating the Tar Heels. Butler, after all, swept Villanova in the regular season. But the Bulldogs also lost against Indiana State and St. John’s – and those are bad losses – and Butler enters the tournament on a two-game losing streak.
Minnesota, meanwhile, finished fourth in a relatively weak Big Ten. The Golden Gophers lost twice against Wisconsin, which UNC handled with ease in Maui back in November. And at one point Minnesota lost five consecutive games before winning eight of its final nine to close the regular season.
UNC HAS TO LOATHE:
That the bottom half of the bracket is brutal. The Tar Heels are looking at a regional championship game against either Kentucky, the No. 2 seed, or UCLA, the No. 3. Either one of those games would be about as difficult as it gets, and both of those teams will be popular choices to win the South.
The Tar Heels, you’ll remember, endured a 103-100 loss against Kentucky in Las Vegas back in December. Malik Monk, the Wildcats’ freshman guard, scored 47 points in one of the all-time great games an opposing player has ever had against UNC.
And then there’s UCLA, led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, who’s arguably the best player in the country. UNC failed to do anything defensively to disrupt Kentucky during that game in Las Vegas, and guarding the Bruins, one of the nation’s best offensive teams, wouldn’t be any easier.
The Tar Heels are only 5-4 this season when an opposing team makes at least 40 percent of its 3-pointers. When that doesn’t happen, UNC is 22-3. The 3-point shot, as it always seems to be, gives opponents its best chance of countering the Tar Heels’ size and overall efficiency on offense.
Among higher seeds, UCLA is the best 3-point shooting team in the South. The Bruins rank sixth nationally in 3-point percentage (40.5 percent). None of the other top five seeds in the region, though, rank among the nation’s top 100 3-point shooting teams (by percentage of made shots).
Ranking the 3-point shooting teams in the South:
No. 10 Wichita State (40.7 percent); No. 3 UCLA (40.5); No. 7 Dayton (38.7); No. 13 Winthrop (38); No. 12 Middle Tennessee (12); No. 8 Arkansas (36.4); No. 4 Butler (36.3); No. 15 Northern Kentucky (36.1); No. 2 Kentucky (35.3); No. 5 Minnesota (34.5); No. 6 Cincinnati (34.3); No. 9 Seton Hall (33.7); No. 14 Kent State (31.4); No. 16 Texas Southern (29.6).
UNC GOES TO THE FINAL FOUR IF:
The Tar Heels rebound well and limit opponents’ 3-point shooting success. Those are the two statistical barometers of success for the Tar Heels: rebounding (especially offensive rebounding) and how well the other team shoots 3s.
Six of UNC’s worst offensive rebounding games coincide with five of the Tar Heels’ defeats (at Virginia, at Duke, at Miami, vs. Kentucky and at Indiana). And, as we’ve covered, UNC is only 5-4 when the other team makes at least 40 percent of its 3s. Sometimes it’s a simple game.
Other important factors: Overall defensive success, especially forcing turnovers. The magic number, for turnover rate, seems to be 15 percent. When UNC forces opponents into committing turnovers on 15 percent of their possessions, the Tar Heels have lost only twice. When it hasn’t, UNC is 4-5.
It’s also difficult to envision UNC making a deep, long run without Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, playing like he did the great majority of the season. He enters the NCAA tournament mired in a slump, having made only 20 of his past 60 attempts from the field.
UNC FALLS SHORT OF THE FINAL FOUR IF:
If the Tar Heels fall victim to a stretch similar to what doomed them late in the second half against Duke – a stretch defined by defensive inadequacy combined with inefficiency on offense. That’s a recipe for defeat, though, that’s hardly unique to UNC.
Remember the underlying cause of the Tar Heels’ breakdown against Duke on Friday: It was foul trouble.
The game changed when Joel Berry committed his fourth foul. He went to the bench with UNC leading by eight and returned 10 minutes later with the Tar Heels trailing by seven. And so the Tar Heels have to avoid game-changing foul trouble, the kind that leaves them without significant contributors for extended periods.
In homage to The N&O of my childhood, when the paper’s NCAA tournament special section was a must-have at lunch tables of middle schools and high schools everywhere in the greater Triangle area, here’s a quick rundown of the South (category names like they were back then):
GOING SWEET: UNC, Butler, UCLA and Kentucky
MIGHT FLOP: Minnesota/Butler. Middle Tennessee is a formidable No. 12 seed and nobody would be tremendously surprised if the Blue Raiders, who finished 30-4, advanced out of the first round. Or even the second, really. Middle Tennessee is capable of beating either Minnesota or No. 4 seed Butler, which faces a tough first-round game in its own right against Winthrop.
DARKHORSE: Cincinnati. The sixth-seeded Bearcats are overshadowed in the bottom half of the bracket, and rightfully so, by UCLA and Kentucky. This is one of the nation’s best defensive teams, though, and Cincinnati is also among the nation’s best at avoiding turnovers. A good combination there.
SENTINMENTAL FAVORITE: No. 10 Wichita State. The Shockers go 30-4, win their final 15 consecutive games and their reward is … a No. 10 seed? If there’s one team that can complain about being under-seeded, it’s Wichita State, which could easily test Kentucky in the second round.
So there you have it. Happy bracket-filling.