It has been an up-and-down year for UNC basketball, but the Tar Heels are trending in the right direction as March Madness approaches.
The reason UNC has turned its season around is the small lineup Roy Williams has implemented in the last five games. Carolina has won four games in a row, including a 68-59 win at Clemson on Thursday night.
Since the lineup change, the question for UNC has gone from whether the Tar Heels would make the tournament to how much damage they can do once they get there.
Here are five powerhouses the Tar Heels could beat in March Madness, with powerhouse meaning any team projected to be a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament by Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller.
Many college basketball fans might not realize that New Mexico is currently No. 2 in the RPI, according to CBSSports.com. Despite that fact, the best win for the Lobos came at Colorado State on Feb. 23 and they needed 46 points from point guard Kendall Williams to pull that out.
North Carolina would match up well with New Mexico. The Lobos have some size, but they don’t rebound well on the offensive end, ranking No. 259 in offensive rebound percentage, according to KenPom.com. They also only shoot 45.4 percent from inside the three-point line.
The Tar Heels have a lot of perimeter players they can put on Williams, and if they shut him down, UNC would have a great shot at winning the game.
Defensively, New Mexico is No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. However, the Lobos are allowing opponents to shoot 34.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Michigan was recently in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but after losing four of its last seven games, that is looking less likely. As a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, the Wolverines could easily be looking at a potential date with North Carolina in the round of 32 when the brackets are announced.
That could spell trouble for the Wolverines since they do not have a frontcourt that could punish the Tar Heels down low. In fact, with each team playing four perimeter players with a post player the majority of the time, it would be an excellent matchup.
Defensively, Michigan leaves a lot to be desired. The Wolverines don’t defend the perimeter well or protect the rim. That was on full display in Michigan’s 84-78 loss at Penn State. The Nittany Lions rank No. 168 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
Gonzaga has a great shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and if North Carolina hangs around the eighth- or ninth-seed line, as ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi currently projects, the Tar Heels could have a round of 32 matchup with Gonzaga.
Zags big man Kelly Olynyk would definitely be an issue for the Heels and their small-ball lineup. However, UNC has done a nice job of forcing opposing big men into turnovers since making the switch. C.J. Leslie had six turnovers in NC State’s loss at Carolina, while Duke center Mason Plumlee and Georgia Tech center Daniel Miller each had four turnovers against the Heels.
Offensively, the Tar Heels could pose some problems for Gonzaga, which is dominated by its front line. If UNC can get hot from the outside, the Tar Heels could definitely pull off an upset over the Zags.
Georgetown is the hottest team in the country, and Otto Porter Jr. is making a strong push for national player of the year consideration. However, North Carolina’s small lineup could match up well with the Hoyas.
Offensively, Georgetown does not have a frontcourt that can beat up teams on the boards. The Hoyas are No. 242 in the country in offensive rebound percentage, according to KenPom.com. Turnovers are also an issue as Georgetown turns the ball over on 19.8 percent of its possessions.
The Tar Heels could throw some long, athletic defenders at Porter. At 6’7” and 205 pounds, Reggie Bullock could potentially hold his own with Porter on the outside as well as down low.
Kansas and North Carolina met last year in the Elite Eight with the Jayhawks coming out on top to earn a trip to the Final Four. Kansas has surged recently, winning its last five games.
Still, the Jayhawks, like every other team in the country, are not without their flaws. Kansas does not force a lot of turnovers, ranking No. 263 nationally in turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com. UNC has done an excellent job taking care of the ball with its new lineup, averaging just eight turnovers per game during the four-game winning streak.
Kansas has also shown that it can struggle against a team playing a smaller lineup. Iowa State made 17 threes and scored 90 points in regulation in its loss to the Jayhawks on Feb. 25. The Tar Heels, with all their perimeter scoring threats, could do some damage against Kansas from the outside.