This year’s NCAA basketball season has been extremely entertaining with many surprises—from Murray State’s spectacular 23-0 start to last year’s champion UConn limping to a 17-10 overall record (as of February 23) and more likely missing the NCAA tournament.
However, one of the most intriguing parts of this season has been the unusual balance seen in many conferences, specifically the ACC. Yes, as expected, North Carolina and Duke are battling it out for the regular season conference title, but who could have seen Florida State playing the Blue Devils Thursday night for a share of that title? Who predicted the Virginia Cavaliers would be sporting a 21-6 record at this point in the season?
North Carolina, Duke, Florida State and Virginia are all locks for the Big Dance, and North Carolina State as well as Miami seem to be assured of at least getting a look to join them. Regardless of whether or not NC State and Miami make the cut, the ACC will definitely do some damage come March.
The big question is, who will do the most damage?
Here’s a hint: their uniforms are blue. Carolina blue to be exact.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have the ingredients needed to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament. They definitely have one of the best shots in the nation to win it all.
Despite the fact that the Heels have, at times, played somewhat sluggish and unmotivated, head coach Roy Williams does not have to say much to get his players motivated when it becomes that time when it is win or go home.
With a current record of 24-4, North Carolina is in line for at least a No. 2 seed in the tournament, and possibly a No. 1 seed depending on how the rest of the season plays out (Joe Lunardi currently has North Carolina and Duke as No. 2 seeds, Florida state as a fourth seed, Virginia as an eighth seed and Miami, if they get in, as a twelfth seed).
No matter what seed the Tar Heels receive, they will be the last ACC team playing basketball in March. The first reason for this is an underclassman who leads the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.61. Kendall Marshall is going to have a big March, folks. With unreal court vision, Marshall truly is a quarterback on the hardwood. A player who is arguably the best in the nation at making his teammates better is definitely a valid reason to say that his team will go the farthest in the tournament than fellow conference teams.
However, despite his ability to dish out the basketball anywhere on the court, there is another factor as to why Marshall will lead the Heels to a long run in March: his newfound confidence in his own scoring. As proven by UConn last year, this point in the season is very much about who is hot and who is not. Kendall Marshall is heating up at the right time.
In North Carolina’s last five games, Marshall has shot 48.3% from the floor and has averaged 10 points per game. He was scary enough when he was only creating points for other players, but now he is proving that he can put the ball in the basket on his own too? Look out Division I basketball.
The second reason why UNC will advance farthest in the tournament also involves Kendall Marshall, and that reason is leadership. As North Carolina’s point guard, Marshall is valuable for more than just statistics. His intangibles make the Tar Heels definite contenders. He is constantly uplifting his teammates and is the definition of being an extension of the head coach on the floor.
When you look at Duke, who is their clear cut leader and floor general? Seth Curry and Austin Rivers are great basketball players for the Blue Devils, no doubt, but they have not developed the leadership qualities that Marshall has.
Virginia and Florida have scorers in Mike Scott and Michael Snaer, respectively, but again, not leaders on Marshall’s level.
Without solid leadership, a team cannot advance in a tournament where games are pressure-filled and tight the whole way through.
The third reason North Carolina will represent the ACC the longest in the NCAA tournament is rebounding. With the tallest frontcourt in all of college basketball, it is not surprising that the Tar Heels have solidified themselves as the best rebounding team in the nation, both on the offensive and defensive glass.
Averaging 46 rebounds per game (about 16 of which are offensive), the Heels do a great job of keeping opponents from getting second-chance points, while creating many second-chance opportunities of their own.
When you keep teams from getting rebounds and secure a good percentage of your missed shots, you put yourself in a position to win many games. Add the fact that you have the second-best scoring offense in the nation, which is my final reason as to why North Carolina will plow their way through the NCAA tournament.
Averaging 82.9 points per game, the Tar Heels are second to only Iona in putting the ball in the hoop. Obviously, man-child Harrison Barnes is the best-known scoring threat on this well-balanced team. Barnes averages 18 points per game, Tyler Zeller averages 15.6 points per game and John Henson averages 14 points per game.
What is most important about this offensive balance is that it shows that even if one of the big three scorers for Carolina is having an off night or becomes the focus of an opposing defense, there are players that are more than capable of picking up the slack and putting points on the board.
In addition to Barnes, Zeller and Henson, bench players Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James McAdoo all have the ability to catch fire in a moment’s notice and provide a spark to the Heels offense.
The Heels definitely have the talent to live up to the preseason expectations that were placed upon them, and the coaching to keep them in check and on track. Barring any major injuries, North Carolina has my confident pick for advancing not only farther than any other ACC team, but also farther than any team in any conference. Simply put: National Champions.