This time last year North Carolina was preparing for a deep run in the NCAA tournament. That run ended in Houston, Texas.
After UNC defeated ACC foe Syracuse, a buzzer-beating shot by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins to win it all sent Carolina packing. As the streamers and confetti fell from the rafters, the Heels were as shocked as any, and were forced to witness Villanova celebrate in front of the man that built the program, Michael Jordan.
UNC hadn’t lost a national title game since 1981, to Isiah Thomas’ Indiana Hoosiers. That feeling has clearly set in on each player from a season ago. Several members of the team have heart-breaking memories of that day saved as screen savers on their cell phones, hoping another opportunity will arise to capitalize on a lost one. A year later Carolina has returned to the Final Four. Here is what got them there and what they’ll need to do going forward:
Tate’s Take: On paper, and paper only, this sure looks like it’s the Heels’ national championship to lose. Roy Williams will make his ninth appearance (nine more than the other three coaches participating). The X-factor here is Isiah Hicks, whom has overachieved since stepping foot on campus in Chapel Hill and shows flashes of talent regularly. He still has yet to find his way out of foul trouble, even within the game’s first few minutes on many occasions much like former Tar Heel forward James Michael McAdoo.
Health concerns loom for starting point guard Joel Berry after nursing a right ankle in the meeting with Kentucky. Winning the tournament will put him in the same conversation as Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, which I didn’t see happening at the beginning at the season when many titled UNC as the nation’s best team.
Surprisingly, it’s been nearly a decade since the Heels have cut down the nets. Considering the program’s prestige, Carolina may be feeling some pressure entering the Final Four. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Carolina found a way to drop the ball somehow considering head coach Roy Williams’ inconsistencies dating all the way back to his days at Kansas.
Conference Player of the Year Justin Jackson has the skill set to assist Berry in leading North Carolina to a title, but even still, you will see rare disappearances during key stretches of the game. Kennedy Meeks will ensure his frontcourt mates the importance and production of key rebounding, where UNC has been among the best in the country all season long. In order to snip the nets on Monday night, freshmen Kenny Williams and all-but-sure-pro Tony Bradley will need to bring their “A game.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise during the tournament going from a walk-on to the starting lineup is Luke Maye, who notched a game-winning shot versus Kentucky in the Elite 8 and a double-double against Butler in the Sweet 16. Nate Britt, however, has been one of the most complementary players for North Carolina. The toughest test thus far has been a very close call and near loss to defensive-minded Arkansas.
Up next is an equally feisty Oregon team that is looking more and more like the most disrespected team remaining. If Carolina wins, rebounding will be the determining factor in addition to its typical successful transition offense. The combination of all three should be enough to return Carolina to its second consecutive national championship game and give the program its sixth national title.