Selection Sunday is upon us. North Carolina will soon discover its path to Houston and to the Final Four, which now seems like much more of a likelihood than it did, say, a couple of weekends ago when the Tar Heels lost at Virginia.
That was then, though. And this is now. And UNC looks like a different team here in March, especially after a tough, grind-it-out 61-57 victory against Virginia on Saturday night in the ACC tournament championship game.
Some final thoughts and observations and takeaways from UNC's run to the ACC championship:
1. UNC is becoming a great defensive team.
The Tar Heels were a good defensive team throughout the regular season. Not as good as coach Roy Williams wanted them to be. Not as good as they thought they believed they could be. But pretty good, nonetheless – the home meltdown against Duke notwithstanding.
The Tar Heels were a great defensive team, though, for long stretches during the ACC tournament. And that's great news for UNC, because when it has lost this season it has been more because of its defensive failures than anything else.
Here's a simple stat: UNC is 0-5 in its five least efficient defensive games this season, according to data from kenpom.com. In all of those games, the Tar Heels' opponents averaged at least 1.07 points per possession. In three of them – against Notre Dame, Virginia and Texas – UNC's opponents averaged 1.20 points per possession.
Another simple stat: UNC is 28-1 when it holds its opponents to 1.06 points per possession or fewer. The only game the Tar Heels lost when that happened was at Louisville, and UNC's defense wasn't necessarily bad that night. That performance just happened to coincide with UNC's least efficient offensive game of the season.
So the takeaway here is that if UNC avoids its worst offensive game and plays good defense, it's undefeated. Nobody has beaten the Tar Heels this season when they've played well defensively and when they've managed to be better than their worst offensively.
In the ACC tournament UNC was often brilliant defensively. The semifinal victory against Notre Dame might have been UNC's best defensive performance in the past 15 years, when you consider the quality of opponent. It's up there, statistically.
The Fighting Irish averaged .68 points per possession against UNC. That was the fewest UNC allowed against a conference opponent since the 2007-08 season against Virginia Tech, according to data from kenpom.com. And this Notre Dame team, which has been one of the best offensive teams in the country, is much better than that Virginia Tech team.
Only two other ACC teams in the kenpom era (dating back to the 2001-02 season) averaged fewer points per possession against UNC than Notre Dame on Friday night: Clemson during the 2003-04 season and Florida State during the 2002-03 season. And again, this Notre Dame team was better.
But back to UNC's defense in this ACC tournament. It wasn't that great, overall, in the quarterfinals against Pittsburgh – though UNC turned it on at the end of the first half. The Tar Heels were spectacular defensively against Notre Dame, though, and then stymied Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game.
The simplest way to put it is this: If UNC plays defense like that in the NCAA tournament a trip to the Final Four might be a foregone conclusion.
2. Joel Berry picked a good time to break out.
Berry's entire sophomore season has been a breakout season. And he has had a good year. But his performance in the ACC tournament was something else.
During three games in Washington, Berry averaged 17 points per game, shot 70.8 percent from the field, 70 percent from the 3-point line, 100 percent from the free throw line (10-for-10), averaged nearly three assists per game and had five steals – four of them in the victory against Pittsburgh.
So no wonder he earned ACC tournament MVP honors. Berry played like one of the best guards in the nation during the ACC tournament, and it wasn't just that he put up those kinds of numbers – it was how he produced some of them, with game-changing shots in important moments.
Like, for instance, the 3-pointer he made on Saturday night with less than six minutes to play against Virginia. It gave UNC a five-point lead and moments later the lead was seven after Justin Jackson came up with a steal and a dunk on the other end. That might have been the game's most important sequence.
Berry, like UNC's defense, had been pretty good throughout the season. And, like UNC's defense, he reached a new, higher level during those three games at the Verizon Center. Certainly a positive development for UNC entering the NCAA tournament.
3. This might have been UNC's most significant ACC tournament championship in decades.
You could argue – and I would – that this was UNC's most meaningful ACC tournament title in the era of the expanded NCAA tournament. It was possibly the most significant ACC tournament championship since the Tar Heels had to win the tournament just to earn an invite into the NCAA tournament.
It was, without question, the most meaningful of the three tournament championships UNC has won under coach Roy Williams. A lot has been made over the years about comments Williams said a long time ago about the tournament, when he basically downplayed the importance of it.
There was none of that this year, though. Williams knew how important a tournament championship would be to his players. His players knew how important a tournament championship would be to Williams. The celebration afterward was emotional and raw, with players – OK, mainly Joel James – screaming in jubilation in the locker room long after the game ended.
The victory against Virginia on Saturday gave UNC its 18th ACC tournament championship. If you didn't know that you might have thought the Tar Heels had won it for the first time. The program had been here before, many times. But this group of players had not, and given all they've endured the past few years they made sure to savor the moment.