Who would have thought the North Carolina Tar Heels would be playing for an ACC title after such a poor start to the season?
Miami may have been the ones to cut down the nets on Sunday, but UNC proved it is a team to be reckoned with. Does this team have one more surprise left in them?
We'll find out soon enough, as the NCAA tournament tips off this later week.
The odds are against this youthful team that is still in its early stages of growth. Not only is there just one senior on the squad, but head coach Roy Williams implemented a small lineup that changed the landscape of Carolina basketball.
While the move has proved to be a winning strategy, the players are still learning how to adjust to the new system.
The following is a blueprint the No. 8-seed Tar Heels will have to follow in order to have a shot at winning the title.
To keep redundancy to a minimum, stats are based on the 11 games the Tar Heels have played in the new lineup unless otherwise indicated. This is a completely different team now, and prior stats have become irrelevant.
In the 11 games Carolina has played in this new system, it has yet to lose the turnover margin. Miami was the only team it didn't win the turnover margin against, as both teams had only eight.
That was also the only game the Tar Heels didn't force the opposing team into double-digit turnovers. They are forcing 9.2 steals and 16.2 turnovers per game, while only giving up 10.4.
Much of their success can be credited to the growth of Marcus Paige's game, along with the boost of intensity and effort P.J. Hairston provides.
This team lacked any sort of fire on the defensive side of the floor for the greater portion of the season. There are numerous reasons we can point to for the boost, but we will never really know what—or who—changed this team's mentality.
What we do know is it all started with the new lineup, and that credit belongs to Roy Williams and his assistants.
Now it is also up to them to keep this team focused on the defensive side of the ball. Carolina can keep up with any team in the country if the players maintain a defense-first mentality.
North Carolina has struggled with shot selection all season long, and the four-guard lineup has only made it easier to fall under the spell of the three ball.
It shot 29 threes in the ACC title game.
That's all fine and dandy when those shots are falling. But when they aren't, Carolina's opponents have been able to make the game closer than it should have been. Or pull away, as Duke did in the final regular season game.
Yes, there is no Tyler Zeller or John Henson to feed the ball to inside. James Michael McAdoo prefers working in space and beating his defender off the dribble. But the guards have all shown they are perfectly capable of taking it to the rack.
Dexter Strickland is the best of the group at this, and has made driving his primary means of scoring since the lineup change. Though, he got away from that against Maryland, when he was burying every jump shot he took in the first half.
That's fine when you're strokin' it.
But Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are the most likely players to jack up unnecessary threes. And I only focus on threes because it is rare either one shoots a mid-range jumper.
It's as if they feel just one more three will put the other team away. But what puts teams away is offensive efficiency in the half court. And it's tough to be efficient when the players rely on a shot that only goes in 38.9 percent of the time.
That's a great team percentage for threes, but the twos are going down 47 percent of the time.
Get the ball inside to McAdoo and be ready to crash the boards. Or the guards can simply take it to the hole themselves, which provides higher-percentage shots and possibly some trips to the foul line.
The Tar Heels have done a much better job at the line, now that the guards have the spacing to drive. The team isn't getting to the foul line more, but it is shooting a much better percentage without McAdoo taking the bulk of the free throws.
The Tar Heels are up to 72.1 percent now. They only missed one free throw in the championship, but they only had 11 attempts.
When 29 of a team's 61 shots are threes, that's going to happen.
It can't happen in the Big Dance, though.
Imagine the points they could put up if they made driving the first option.
The Triangle Trio of Bullock, Hairston and McAdoo has been on an amazing run since joining forces. These three "Star Heels" are averaging 46.1 points and 19.7 rebounds per game.
Hairston leads the group in scoring with 18.1 points per game. Bullock has become a marvelous rebounder for a guard, pulling down 8.5 boards per game.
Those are some eye-opening numbers, and they could very well be the best trio in the country if they could be consistent together.
It always seems at least one of them struggles with shooting in every game. It isn't easy to get 20-plus points from three different players, but opportunity isn't the issue.
All three players get plenty of looks in each game.
Look no further than the ACC championship for proof of that. Bullock shot the ball 14 times, but only came up with 11 points on three treys and two free throws.
As mentioned in the previous slide, Bullock and Hairston will settle for the three too often—even when struggling to make them. McAdoo has been better about his shot selection, but he still goes into hyper mode, flying to the basket and putting up highly-contested and low-percentage shots.
He tends to put up a line-drive version of a floater that banks off the backboard too hard. It would be nice to see a short, pull-up jumper when he gets his defender leaning toward the basket.
Or he could at least put a little "float" in the floater.
Consistency across the board from the Triangle Trio would put any team in the country on its heels. If they can find a way to do that, the Tar Heels could turn into a team nobody wants to face.
Marcus Paige has had a trying first campaign as a Carolina point guard. A lot of weight lands on the shoulders of anyone in his position at Chapel Hill, and he has taken it all in stride.
With his early struggles, many fans were beginning to wonder whether or not he would ever be the right fit for Roy's system. Those question marks were quickly erased following the implementation of the smaller lineup.
Paige finally had room to work and Carolina's best weapons at his disposal.
Then there was the Maryland game, when he coughed up eight turnovers. He followed that up with five more against Duke in the season finale. It was becoming a little disconcerting.
But it would appear that slump is over after three strong performances in the ACC tournament.
Paige finished the tournament averaging 11.3 points, 1.3 steals and 5.7 assists to just one turnover per game. He was also 5-of-11 from three-point range, and buried a few clutch shots against Maryland in the semifinals.
He may have his bad games, but no stage ever seems too big for the freshman floor general.
If he can keep this going through the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels will have a shot to do some big things. However, this team isn't strong enough to do it without Paige.
Even if the Triangle Trio dominates every game, the Tar Heels won't have a chance without their quarterback.
Now that the bracket is out, I can break down Carolina's potential path to a title, using no science whatsoever. There is no such thing as an obvious pick when it comes to March Madness.
The best we can do is rely on our guts.
The Tar Heels first matchup won't be an easy one, as they have to go through a tough Villanova team to get to the next round. It doesn't get any easier in Round 3, either.
I don't see Western Kentucky knocking off No. 1-seed Kansas, so they will most likely be facing the Jayhawks in the next round—the same program that bounced Carolina in the Elite Eight just one year ago.
It's going to be a tight one between VCU and Michigan in Round 3. I don't have a lot of faith in the Wolverines, but I believe they will have enough firepower to get past the Rams.
That means the Sweet 16 matchup would be Michigan and North Carolina, which would be a pretty exciting game to watch. Both programs are extremely athletic and loaded with shooters.
But if Carolina makes it to its third-straight Elite Eight, I believe it will be against the Georgetown Hoyas. As good as Kansas is, this would probably be UNC's toughest opponent, given Georgetown's overwhelming size across the board.
In the East, I give Indiana the slight edge over Miami to move on to the Final Four—though, I believe any ACC fan would love to see another matchup like the title game we just witnessed. But I think this game belongs to Indiana.
Indiana romped UNC earlier in the season, but this team is completely different now. Not only have the players grown substantially, the Hoosiers didn't have to face this small lineup—or P.J. Hairston for that matter.
Hairston missed that game with a sprained knee.
If Carolina moved past Indiana to play in the title game, it could very well be the Louisville Cardinals the Tar Heels will have to face for the title. Michigan State and Ohio State are both strong possibilities, but Coach Pitino will lead this team to the show.
Coach Pitino versus Coach Williams. ACC versus future ACC.
Now that's a championship I could get into.