Final Four Fact Sheet: North Carolina Tar HeelsPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2017
Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: North Carolina.
How North Carolina Got Here
South Region Champions. This North Carolina run to the Final Four was equal parts exceedingly easy and excruciatingly difficult. The Tar Heels posted the largest margin of victory in the opening round against Texas Southern, but needed to overcome a five-point deficit in the final three minutes to escape Arkansas just two days later. The Sweet 16 brought a return to relaxation for Heels fans, as UNC exploded out of the gate en route to an “it-wasn’t-even-that-close” 12-point win over Butler. The final step was the hardest, however, as familiar Elite Eight foe Kentucky played the Heels even for 39 minutes and 59.7 seconds. Those finals tenths of a second are now history, of course, as Luke Maye propelled Carolina to another Final Four with his dramatic game-winner.
Roy Williams. The UNC head man owns all eight of the career Final Four appearances (prior to this one) among the quartet of coaches still alive. He also earned a rare bit of praise for his timeout-avoidant tendencies last weekend, as it was Roy’s reticence to stop his offense that allowed Carolina to race down the court and beat an unsettled Kentucky defense for Maye’s game-winner. Few, Altman, and Martin have all been around and are respected coaches, but Williams’ experience sets him apart from his peers on the opposing sidelines in this Final Four. Whether or not it proves decisive is anyone’s guess, but Carolina fans should feel comfortable in the knowledge that Williams knows both his team and this stage better than anyone.
The speed and efficiency of Carolina’s offense is well known as a Tar Heel strength, and deservedly so. UNC ranks 6th nationally in overall offensive efficiency, leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage, and has no problem playing fast, finishing possessions in an average of 15.4 seconds (22nd quickest in the country). The balanced Tar Heel offense is headlined by AP All-American Justin Jackson (18.2 PPG, UNC-record 99 3PM), but fellow upperclassmen Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks all join Jackson in averaging double-figure points per game. It’s an explosive offense, surely, but UNC’s success has been predicated off work on both ends of the floor. Amazingly, Williams’ bunch has been able to slow opponents down even while playing offense at a breakneck speed: Carolina foes average 17.8 seconds per possession, good for 272nd slowest in the nation. The underrated Tar Heel defense was on display in the South regional final against Kentucky, as Jackson and company harassed Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox into a combined 9-23 shooting from the field. A similar assignment will await in Phoenix, as Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey are likely to draw the bulk of the Carolina defensive attention. On paper, there’s no reason why Carolina, the 17th most efficient defensive team in the nation (one slot above Oregon), won’t be up to the challenge.
- Pushing tempo. This strength is baked into Roy Williams’ reputation, has played out on the stat sheet, and was on full display on the final possession of the regional final Sunday: Carolina is entirely comfortable racing up the court. It doesn’t matter what the result of the opponent’s offensive possession – turnover, missed hoop, or even made bucket – UNC is ready to run at all times and demands that foes be prepared to play 40 minutes of transition defense. Any lapses in that pursuit promise to be costly.
- Offensive rebounding. The Tar Heels don’t have one individually dominant big man, but the trio of Meeks, Hicks, and freshman Tony Bradley have combined to lead a full-fledged assault on the offensive backboards this season. As mentioned, the Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 41.9%, and Meeks personally is 10th in the country in grabbing 16.2% of Carolina misses when he is on the court. Bradley is even better at 18.7%, but doesn’t have the minutes to qualify for the national rankings. We’ll hear a lot about UNC’s fast-paced offense, but don’t forget the impact of its bruising front line, too.
- Experience. Are we at the point where Tournament experience is so overrated its underrated? Perhaps. In a one-and-done era that has given birth to multiple National Champions led by freshmen, Tournament experience is far from requisite. But if you’ve watched this Tar Heel team move through this field of 68, you would be hard-pressed to argue its collective experience hasn’t proven immensely beneficial. It’s a mature group that gets along well, and their experience on this same stage a year ago cannot hurt their chances this weekend. Trust us, it matters.
- Three-point shooting. Carolina is a well-rounded team, especially on the offensive end. However, if there’s an Achilles heel, it’s the Tar Heels three-point shooting. Only 25.3% of UNC points come from behind the arc (293rd fewest in the country), and the team’s 36.2% mark from long range is hardly setting the world on fire. Making matters worse are the two bad ankles of ace shooter Joel Berry II (39.2% 3P, 80 3PM); if Berry is banged up and Luke Maye isn’t the Luke Maye we saw in Memphis (and only in Memphis), Justin Jackson becomes the only viable threat from the perimeter. Not an ideal scenario.
- Interior defense. For all its strength inside and effectiveness on the backboards, the UNC interior can be exploitable for opposing offenses. No part of the trio of Meeks, Hicks, and Bradley ranks as an elite shot-blocker, so there’s no huge reason for opposing slashers to fear an aggressive foray to the hoop. All have proven susceptible to foul trouble at times this season, too, so attacking them in the post is an equally viable strategy. It’s hard to call any UNC trait a true weakness – they are really that balanced – but opponents would do well to begin its offensive approach by probing inside.
- Free throws. You might forget after Maye’s game-winner, but was a late Jackson miss at the line that gave Malik Monk the opportunity for his heroic game-tying shot on Sunday. UNC shoots only 70% from the line as a team, with Berry as the only truly elite free throw shooter (81%). It hasn’t been unusual for Roy Williams to see the misses pile up from the stripe this year, and it’s been a decent way for opponents to mitigate the Tar Heels power up front and on the glass.
Justin Jackson (18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG). As a junior who has grown into an All-American caliber player, Jackson is hardly an unknown quantity at this point. He transformed his jump shot in 2016-17, making more three-point shots than any UNC player ever has in a single season. It’s an amazing record, considering Jackson made 35 fewer three-pointers in his first two seasons combined, and shot under 30% while doing it. The other elements of his game have always been there – springy athleticism, a savvy mid-range game, and an unwavering defensive commitment – but Jackson’s newfound stroke has made him a terror all season, and potentially the best player in this Final Four.
Luke Maye (5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 41% 3P). The health and production of Joel Berry II will certainly be worth monitoring, but there can’t be a player on the Carolina roster who qualifies as a larger X-factor/source of intrigue than Maye. He was the South region’s Most Outstanding Player after playing little more than a bit role throughout the season, but Roy Williams would have you believe that Maye is capable of replicating his performance in Memphis for a longer stretch of time. It’s highly plausible that duplication occurs next season, but can the Heels squeeze more game-changing production out of Maye in Phoenix?
Things are looking pretty good in Chapel Hill. Not everything is perfect – Berry’s ankles, those flashes of mortality along the way to Phoenix – but North Carolina is a decided favorite to advance to Monday’s Championship game. Meeks and Hicks might finally make Oregon miss the injured Chris Boucher, and look for Jackson to make life difficult for either Dorsey or Brooks on the offensive end, as he did Monk on Sunday. Expect the Heels to advance past a game Ducks team to face Gonzaga in a matchup of two of this season’s best and most consistent teams. On paper, and in the sports books, it would be a virtual coin flip of a National Championship game. However, we’re ready to give Carolina the smallest of edges because of its mature response to the heartbreak they suffered on this stage last year. Roy Williams’ bunch has sought an opportunity at redemption all season; when finally armed with it on Monday night, we don’t doubt they’ll fail to take advantage.