While No. 7 seed Washington emerged as a trendy pick to upset the second-seeded Tar Heels in NCAA third round action last Sunday, the fact of the matter was that North Carolina was paired with two opening round opponents that favored the same style of play that Roy Williams has essentially perfected.
Add in the ability to play in Charlotte, where UNC is 11-0 in NCAA Tournament play, and No. 15 seed Long Island and the Huskies encountered a tough mountain to climb.
When the East Region was revealed on Selection Sunday, plenty of fans and pundits immediately called for the Tar Heels’ demise to occur in the Sweet 16 against No. 3 seed Syracuse. The Orange would have been playing less than four hours from their campus and finished the regular season as one of only two teams ranked in the top-20 nationally in both field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense.
But those concerns paled in comparison to Jim Boeheim’s patented matchup zone, a defensive set has posed problems for North Carolina throughout the season. Those concerns were eradicated just hours after the Tar Heels dispatched the Huskies, however, as No. 11 seed Marquette pulled the upset over the Big East adversary.
Apparently even the UNC coaching staff understood the size of the bullet its team had dodged in the Sweet 16.
“I remember Coach [Joe] Holladay saying he’s happy we were playing Marquette because Syracuse runs a good 2-3 zone,” sophomore guard Dexter Strickland told reporters on Thursday. “We feel like Marquette is a similar team to Washington. I think we know what we have to do to win.”
North Carolina throttled the Golden Eagles on Friday by utilizing its significant height advantage against a team that just had no answer. UNC was a bad matchup for Marquette, pure and simple.
East Region No. 1 seed Ohio State was the heavy favorite to punch its ticket to the Final Four entering the Sweet 16, having enjoyed a 17.0 margin of victory in five postseason contests this March, but No. 4 seed Kentucky guard Brandon Knight drained a clutch jumper with five seconds to play to knock the Buckeyes and their 42.4 season average from the 3-point line out of the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not to say that North Carolina’s road to the title game has been cleared of all obstacles and can therefore be defined as a leisurely stroll through the streets of Newark and Houston. That definition is reserved for the No. 1 seed in the Southwest Region – the Kansas Jayhawks.
Bill Self’s squad defeated a No. 16 seed (Boston University), a No. 9 seed (Illinois) and a No. 12 seed (Richmond) to reach the Elite Eight, where No. 11 seed VCU stands in their way. With No. 8 seed Butler upsetting No. 2 seed Florida in the Southeast region on Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs represent the highest seed in Kansas’s path to the title game – without question the easiest route in NCAA Tournament history.
North Carolina would have even welcomed Armageddon – the media’s moniker for a potential UNC-Duke Final Four matchup next Saturday – but the top-seeded Blue Devils would have represented quite possibly the worst matchup for the Tar Heels in the Big Dance outside of Syracuse. Duke’s starting backcourt combined for 137 points in three games with their rivals this season, and that was before the return of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving.
Williams pointed to those Duke games on Saturday as an example of how matchups play a role in deciding outcomes.
“When we played Duke, we put Dexter on Nolan [Smith] and Kendall [Marshall] on Seth [Curry] and we have done those things in the past,” Williams told a packed media room at the Prudential Center. “I do believe it gets down to a matchup a lot of times. But look at last night's matchup of [Kentucky’s Josh] Harrellson and [Ohio State’s Jared] Sullinger. You look at the stats and you say Sullinger may have gotten him a little bit, but it didn't make any difference because Kentucky's team won.
“You can do some things, go down and look at some of the things that happened in the Duke game when we played them anytime. Well, this part of North Carolina's team outplayed that part of Duke's team or vice versa. But it didn't make any difference. At the end it’s either Duke won or North Carolina won or Duke winning again. And the matchups have a tremendous influence during the course of that game.”
Which brings us to Sunday’s meeting with Kentucky. While North Carolina likely holds an advantage in the frontcourt, Strickland will be called upon to move from his off-guard spot to man up Knight. That leaves Marshall with the difficult task of guarding Doron Lamb, a streaky 6-foot-4 shooting guard who dropped 24 on UNC in December and then scored 32 on Winthrop 18 days later.
Williams refuses to place too much emphasis on that particular matchup, however.
“I don't think that's the biggest thing in this game because you have two teams that really are teams,” Williams said. “It's not one guy scoring 30 – and this isn't nothing reflecting against anybody else in the Tournament. It is just that I love it when we have five guys in double figures. And John [Calipari] probably likes it that way himself. It is not just one guy, so perhaps a little less in this game than some of them.”
Regardless, UNC’s chances of advancing to the Final Four increased when the Wildcats knocked off Ohio State on Friday. As it stands, North Carolina would have to lose to a higher seed – No. 3 Connecticut, No. 4 Kentucky or No. 5 Arizona – on its path to the national championship game.
Several doses of good fortune have fallen into the Tar Heels’ laps over the past two weeks. Now it’s up to the boys in blue to take full advantage.