UNC Basketball: How Tar Heels Can Make a Run for NCAA Tournament

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UNC Basketball: How Tar Heels Can Make a Run for NCAA Tournament
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Roy Williams must sit in his office at times when he is watching film by himself and smile. His young team is flying under the radar.

At 11-5 and unranked, the NCAA Tournament is not the primary consideration for Williams' young North Carolina Tar Heel team. Growth and improvement take precedence.

But playing in March in the NCAA Tournament is the very thing on the mind of all Tar Heels basketball fans. The NCAA Tournament is the marker by which Williams and all great coaches judge themselves. 

It is what will ultimately determine the success of the 2012-13 UNC team. 

As it stands now, the Tar Heels are more of a sure thing to play in the NCAA Tournament than most suspect. 

Of their five losses, none could be considered a bad loss.

Their  82-71 loss to Butler on November 20 came in the Maui Classic in Hawaii. Butler is once again an underrated team under Brad Stevens and as always played its best basketball in a tournament setting. 

The Bulldogs are 14-2 and ranked 14th in the country. There is no shame in that loss.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Tar Heels then traveled to Bloomington, Ind., in late November for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and got run out of the building by the Hoosiers, then the nation's No. 1 team.

The third loss came on December 19 to Texas, 85-67, in Austin. With that win, Texas improved to 6-0 on its home court. After being blitzed early in the first half of the game, the Heels showed some fight in the second half. 

Consecutive losses in conference play to Virginia and Miami, respectively, surprised many a college basketball fan. But Miami and Virginia are teams on the rise in the ACC. Tony Bennett and Jim Larranaga have their teams prepared to make a run for the NCAA Tournament in much the same way that Williams does. 

With quality wins over UNLV and Florida State in the past three weeks, this young UNC team is right where it should be expected to be. 

It is inconsistent. It is talented. It playing the same type of basketball that Williams' teams have in the past. 

At 79.7 points per game, the Tar Heels rank 12th in the nation in points per game. They also find themselves ranked favorably nationally in rebounding, third with 43.2 per game; assists, fifth with 18.3 per game; and possessions per 40 minutes, 10th with 73.9.

In fact, statistical analysis neither damns nor disqualifies Williams' team from the elite of college basketball.

Defensively, the team does a great job of patrolling its own goal after opponents’ missed shots. It also causes enough turnovers to effectively run its transition-based offense.

The only area  where the Tar Heels noticeably struggle is getting to the free-throw line and converting those opportunities. They are is 228th in the country in free throw attempts, having tried only 293, and are making only 63.8 of those.

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Given Williams’ fast-paced style—which relies on three-point shots and layups—and youthful roster, it is not a surprise to see the Tar Heels rank so low in those statistics.

It is actually surprising to see such an inexperienced team defeat two of the better teams it has played this season—No. 20 (at the time) UNLV, with its super-talented freshman Anthony Bennett, and Florida State on Saturday.

Though Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles regularly improve as the season goes on, so too do Williams’ squads, especially the young ones.

It is not unreasonable to think that this Tar Heels team will grow by leaps and bounds from now until we reach the ACC Tournament. That is the power of having one of the game's best coaches.

So far, UNC's schedule is the nation's 30th most difficult, which should hold Williams' squad in good stead with the NCAA selection committee.

Still, this team has work to do.

Simply put, UNC must improve on its 93rd defensive ranking (according to sports-reference.com/cbb). If it can move up the rankings approximately 20 spots, it can win enough games to lock up an NCAA Tournament berth prior to the beginning of the ACC Tournament.

Make no mistake about it, Williams will have his team ready to play come March. The Tar Heels just need that opportunity. It appears it will avail itself. 

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