North Carolina will begin the NCAA tournament as a fourth seed in the West Region, against No. 13-seeded Harvard on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Perhaps most important, though, the Tar Heels will begin it hoping to carry over the momentum they built during the ACC tournament.
In the haze of a defeat in a game that changed in an instant – one moment UNC looking like it would win the ACC tournament, the next trying to respond to a run from which the Tar Heels never recovered – it was difficult for some players to quantify their growth during the past week.
“Right now we can’t really see it,” freshman forward Justin Jackson said Saturday night after the 90-82 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC final at the Greensboro Coliseum. “Because the loss really blurs everything that you accomplished before.
“Honestly, everything that we did before doesn’t really matter since we lost.”
He quickly corrected himself and realized it does matter. UNC did grow, it did play well in Greensboro and it did create some momentum for what the Tar Heels – and every other team – have been building toward: the NCAA tournament.
Undoubtedly, the Tar Heels earned a No. 4 seed in part because of their performance in the ACC tournament, where they defeated Louisville and Virginia on back-to-back days.
Entering last week, most projections had UNC as a No. 5 seed. Some projections had the Tar Heels sent out west to start the tournament in Portland or Seattle.
Their run to the ACC tournament championship game, though, solidified a higher seed and helped keep them on the east coast. If UNC defeats Harvard, it sets up a possible game against Arkansas, the No. 5 seed.
Harvard went 22-7 and beat Yale to earn the Ivy League’s automatic bid. The Crimson prefers a slower pace on offense, but it’s among the top 40 defensive teams in the nation, according to KenPom.com.
If UNC wins twice in Jacksonville, it would advance to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles. Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten regular-season and the tournament championships, is the top seed in the region.
The Tar Heels appear to be a different team from the one that arrived in Greensboro with no shortage of questions. Point guard Marcus Paige, finally healthy, played like he often did last season, when he was a first-team All-ACC selection.
Jackson, meanwhile, scored a season-high 22 points against Virginia and provided the Tar Heels with a reliable complement to Paige on the perimeter. Brice Johnson, so often the target of coach Roy Williams’ ire, played as well as he has during his time at UNC.
Johnson finished with 22 points against Louisville, and with 20 – on 10-for-12 shooting – against Notre Dame. In a lot of ways, UNC became the team it believed it would be back in October.
“When we’re locked in and competing like we have for these past four days, with the exception of a couple-minute stretch (against Notre Dame), we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Paige said Saturday. “We beat Virginia … we beat Louisville, a great team, one of the elite teams.
“And we hung in there with Notre Dame and had a chance to win this game. So that’s three games in a row against teams that are potentially capable of making a team run. So that means we’re the same way.”
Paige’s health is one of the reasons behind the Tar Heels’ optimism. He is averaging 18.2 points during UNC’s past five games, and he appears to have regained his quickness and ability to penetrate, both of which suffered while he was most afflicted with plantar fasciitis, a painful foot condition.
Paige said he still feels some pain after games, but it’s a lot less than it used to be.
“The fact that we just played four games in four days and I’m walking around and I feel OK is a good sign for me,” he said. “Because there’s no other time when I’m going to have to play four games in four days.”
At the end of the regular season, after a defeat against Duke on senior night, Williams spoke of his desire to “do a better job.” He spoke of rediscovering the kind of success that defined the first half of his tenure, when he led the Tar Heels to national championships in 2005 and 2009.
The Tar Heels don’t enter the NCAA tournament among the favorites to reach the Final Four, but during the ACC tournament they played more the way Williams prefers – with more intensity, more defensive pressure, more movement and activity on offense.
“Yeah, I think we have grown in the four days that we’ve been here,” Williams said Saturday night. “I think we’ve shown some toughness during those four days. We’ve played better defensively during those four days.”
Now UNC will attempt to carry all of it over to the NCAA tournament. Entering the most important part of the season, more optimism and hope surround UNC than there had been about a week ago.
RECORD: 22-7. LAST 10: 8-2
BID: Automatic (Ivy). RPI: 54
BEST WIN: Beat Yale twice, including tiebreaker.
SCOUTING THE CRIMSON: Making fourth straight NCAA appearance, fifth overall, behind senior guard Wesley Saunders (16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists per game).