One of the hottest topics in college basketball right now is the talk of which teams will be national title contenders in March Madness. Right now, the North Carolina Tar Heels are lurking in the shadows behind Syracuse and Kentucky, the two most consistent teams all season long.
While teams like the Missouri Tigers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Duke Blue Devils and Kansas Jayhawks are all being mentioned as programs capable of cutting down the nets in April, the Tar Heels are flying significantly under the radar.
It's a foregone conclusion that the boys from Chapel Hill are always a dangerous draw in March, but this season, they are especially dangerous for several reasons.
First of all, they have the talent to win a title. Their roster this year is loaded with at least five future NBA draft picks in small forward Harrison Barnes, center John Henson, power forward Tyler Zeller, point guard Kendall Marshall and freshman power forward James Michael McAdoo.
The catalyst for their title drive is the 6'4" sophomore southpaw Marshall. The pass-first point guard is exactly the type of point guard this team needs, one who looks to distribute the ball to his teammates first and score if necessary.
While many teams have been backing off of him and dared him to shoot jumpers, he has proved that he can score, along with dishing out his spectacular 9.7 assists each game. In their loss to Duke, he made 5-of-9 shots from the field while scoring 14 points and handing out eight dimes.
One of the crucial ingredients for a deep run in tournament play is a strong frontcourt. North Carolina might have the strongest in the country with a lineup of Barnes, Zeller and Henson. All three are all-conference players and future NBA standouts.
Who needs to step up as UNC's leader in order for them to make a Final Four run?
The 6'8" Barnes is the key. He has proved this season that when he is assertive and plays with a killer instinct, the Tar Heels are dangerous. He dominated the Duke game against a strong Blue Devils defensive effort, scoring 25 points while getting to the free-throw line an impressive 12 times.
In the three games since that loss, he has a combined 61 points and 24 rebounds in three relatively easy UNC wins against Virginia, Miami and Clemson. The Tar Heels go as Barnes goes, and his recent numbers are indicating that his strong play will continue into the ACC tournament as well as the NCAA tournament.
Nobody should underestimate the power of, well, underestimation. While this North Carolina team has been hovering in the top 10 of the polls all season long, they've been basically written off as contenders since Dexter Strickland's ACL injury. While there's no arguing that they have been wildly inconsistent (33 point loss at Florida State), they have no bad losses, as well as wins over NCAA tournament locks Michigan State, Wisconsin and Long Beach State.
You can argue that losing Strickland at the shooting guard position will ultimately doom the Heels, but Reggie Bullock is a more than capable replacement. While he isn't nearly as good on the defensive end of the floor, he is easily a better long distance shooter, and that's what this team needs to complement their monster frontcourt. In the past two victories over Clemson and Miami, he has shot 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, while averaging 6.5 rebounds.
What makes the University of North Carolina most dangerous in the upcoming NCAA tournament is their leader, head coach Roy Williams. Point blank, he is one of the best coaches the game of basketball has ever seen. Since taking over for the historic program in 2004, he has coached Carolina to two national titles, one Final Four, five ACC regular season championship and two ACC tournament championships.
By pairing a historical head coach with a roster littered with such exceptional talent, North Carolina has the look of a dangerous team. They've been written off many times this season, but they are starting to blossom into the expectations that were placed upon them in the preseason, a Final Four squad ready to do damage.