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After winning three straight games before falling to No. 1 Virginia in the ACC Tournament championship game, North Carolina was rewarded with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional and the opportunity to play the first two rounds in nearby Charlotte.
It’s a relatively friendly draw for the Tar Heels, who open their title defense against No. 15 seed Lipscomb (23-9), winner of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. Regional top seed Xavier (28-5) is the lowest-ranked of the top seeds in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (14), which have Carolina ranked seventh, highest among teams in the West Region.
Should Carolina advance, a possible Sweet 16 matchup with red hot No. 3 seed Michigan (28-7; No. 10 POM), may be the biggest obstacle between the Heels and their third straight Final Four appearance. The Wolverines have won nine of their last 10 games, including a dominant run to the Big Ten tournament title a week ago.
The friendly Charlotte draw is that much more important for Carolina given the physical toll taken by playing four games in four days in the ACC Tournament. Finishing that stretch with Virginia, which forces players to defend long possessions, only exacerbated that fatigue. According to STATS LLC, four Carolina players ran over a mile on defense against the Cavaliers — Kenny Williams (1.18 miles), Joel Berry II (1.17), Luke Maye (1.06) and Theo Pinson (1.01).
In addition to general fatigue, several key Tar Heels left New York with bumps and bruises that will require treatment in advance of NCAA play. Berry had to leave the game after tweaking his ankle early in the quarterfinals Thursday against Miami, and Williams referenced sore knees — and a sleep schedule affected by three straight late-night tip-offs — after Saturday’s game against Virginia.
But the most significant point of attention for UNC’s training staff over the next week is likely to be forward Cam Johnson’s strained back, which first tightened up after he banged his hip against Miami and was then re-aggravated in a hard fall on Saturday against Virginia. Johnson did not return to the game, though he is expected to be fully available for the first round Friday.
RIVALRY RUBBER MATCH
After collapsing down the stretch and losing at Duke in the final game of the regular season on March 3, Carolina bounced back to defeat its rival 74-69 in the ACC semifinals Friday. Carolina led for all but 31 seconds of the contest.
UNC was noticeably more aggressive on both ends of the floor than in the last contest, forcing 18 turnovers while also holding the Blue Devils’ usually efficient offense to 40.7 percent from the floor and 26 percent from 3-point range.
Freshman big man Garrison Brooks played perhaps his best game as a Tar Heel in his 16 minutes of action, particularly on the defensive end against Duke’s highly-regarded interior scorers. Brooks also led Carolina in scoring at the half with eight points to go with four rebounds gathered in 10 minutes.
After being outrebounded 24-13 in the second half of the regular season finale, Carolina kept the rebounding differential close (39-40) despite the size difference, including 18 offensive rebounds on 71 total shots (25.3 percent).
DEFENSE, PINSON KEYS
After inconsistent defensive effort at times throughout the season, Carolina appeared to turn the intensity switch to its 100-percent setting in the ACC Tournament. In addition to the outstanding defensive performance against Duke, the Heels held Syracuse to 31.7 percent in the second round and Miami to 31.7 percent from the field.
The other primary key to the three wins in New York was the outstanding play of Pinson, who averaged 16.3 points, 5.3 assists, and 8.7 rebounds in those games, including a career-high 25 points against Miami.
Carolina has clearly improved as Pinson has taken more of a role as the primary facilitator (more of a traditional point guard role) over the final quarter of the season, getting the ball into the lane and distributing the ball to Berry, Maye and the other shooters for high-percentage looks.
MAYE ACADEMIC ALL-AMERICAN
On Monday, Maye was named a second-team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). In addition to averaging 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, Maye carries a 3.45 GPA in business administration.
NO SPRING FOOTBALL GAME
Despite initially releasing a spring football practice schedule including a spring game on April 14, head coach Larry Fedora has announced that Carolina will forgo the spring game entirely, citing logistical issues and the advantage of using that day for a full practice rather than a public scrimmage.
STATS OF THE WEEK
Carolina’s “Adjusted Efficiency Margin” (a Pomeroy metric measuring a team’s expected margin of victory over a hypothetical average Division 1 team in a 100-possession game) of 25.0 lags slightly behind last year’s 28.2. All but three NCAA Tournament champions since 2002 have had AdjEM ratings above 28. The exceptions: 2014 UConn (22.1), 2011 UConn (23.9), and 2003 Syracuse (23.3).
UNC is 11-0 in NCAA Tournament games in Charlotte. Roy Williams is 27-0 in the tournament’s first round.