North Carolina was No. 1 in the AP men's basketball preseason poll, No. 3 in the final regular season one and earned the No. 1 seed in the East Region. The Tar Heels swept the ACC regular season and tournament titles. Those accomplishments are great. But the season won’t be considered a success to some in Chapel Hill unless the Tar Heels reach their ultimate goal - the Final Four in Houston. That's just life on Tobacco Road.
Here are three reasons they can get there, but keep in mind, it’s a rugged path for a top seed. The Tar Heels challenge starts in earnest in Raleigh on Saturday night against No. 9 Providence, led by talented stars Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, a potent inside-outside combination. Survive the Friars, and Kentucky or Indiana, possibly West Virginia or Xavier could block the path of Roy Williams’ eighth Final Four trip and the 19th in school history. He’s guided the Tar Heels there three times, winning two championships, most recently in 2009.
Improved defense - There's plenty of talent and experience on this UNC squad. The Tar Heels start two seniors and have two juniors in their top six. Forward Brice Johnson had an All-American caliber senior season and guard Marcus Paige has started 134 games in four years and scored more than 1,700 points.
But the Tar Heels’ defense was suspect through the first two-thirds of the season. They allowed 1.07 points per possession or more in five of their six losses, and were 5-5 in their first 10 games against top 50 KenPom opponents. After the crushing one-point loss to Duke, the Tar Heels adjusted how they were defending ball screens, and improved rapidly on the defensive end. In the ACC championship game, UNC held Virginia and its elite offense to less than one point per possession for only the third time this season. The Tar Heels have risen to 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom. Paired with a top 10 offense, it creates a statistical profile befitting a national champion.
Joel Berry’s 3-point shooting (and a warming Marcus Paige) - Berry, a sophomore, seized the greater role he absorbed in Paige’s absence early in the season. On an otherwise dreadful 3-point shooting team (31.5 pct., 307th), he’s given the Tar Heels at least one reliable perimeter threat. He splashes about two 3-pointers per game and connects at a 38 percent clip.
Paige, who missed six games due to an injured non-shooting hand, provided adept long-range marksmanship (180 3s the last two seasons) until his outside touch deserted him this year. He’s hitting only 33 percent, but has shown flashes of emerging. In the last eight days, Paige has gone 2 of 5 vs. Pittsburgh, 4 of 7 vs. Notre Dame and 3 of 7 vs. FGCU. Hard to imagine UNC snipping the nets without their two best shooters knocking down open shots.
Isaiah Hicks, and frontcourt depth - Johnson and Kennedy Meeks typically start at the two post positions for UNC, but the junior forward Isaiah Hicks would probably crack the starting lineup on, say, 90 percent of the teams still competing in March Madness. As a senior at Oxford Webb HS in 2013 the 6-8 Hicks had 34 points and 30 rebounds in the state title game his team won.
He hasn’t quite matched that production in college, although he did record 11 points and 15 rebounds in the ACC semifinal thrashing of Notre Dame. He’s 15 pounds heavier than when he arrived in Chapel Hill yet remains bouncy and efficient, making 61 percent of shots. Hicks is also still a terror on the offensive glass, snaring 13 percent of the Tar Heels’ misses during his 18 minutes per game. Having a guy like Hicks, and even the seldom used big men Joell James and Luke Maye stashed on the bench, means Williams, who often uses 10 players, can withstand a rash of foul trouble and win a battle of attrition.
The Heels should feel confident they can match any frontcourt they’ll face in the next three weekends.