Despite Flaws, ACC Champ UNC's Talent Still Makes It an NCAA Title Favorite

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 5, 2016

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts following North Carolina's 76-72 win over Duke in an NCAA college basketball game in Durham, N.C., Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

In the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, you take wins any way you can get them.

In many regards, No. 8 North Carolina played miserably against No. 17 Duke on Saturday night, but the Tar Heels managed to escape Cameron Indoor Stadium with a crucial 76-72 road win to clinch an outright ACC title.

When the final buzzer sounded, Brice Johnson was overcome with emotion, barely able to put into words what the win meant. Fellow senior Marcus Paige told ESPN's Shannon Spake on the broadcast, "After three losses in a row here, with a chance to win the outright ACC championship, we couldn't be more proud of the way we did it as seniors."

They shot 35.6 percent from the field and 17.4 percent from three-point range. Starters Paige, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson shot a combined 10-of-37 (27.0 percent) from the field. Isaiah Hicks committed four fouls in just nine minutes of action. They lost the turnover battle 14-6 and allowed the Blue Devils to make 13 three-pointers.

DURHAM, NC - MARCH 05:  Brice Johnson #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels shoots over Marshall Plumlee #40 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Imag
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It had all the ingredients of an ugly loss.

Just about the only thing the Tar Heels did well was rebound, and goodness gracious did they ever rebound, finishing plus-32 on the glass against the short-handed, undersized Blue Devils.

"This has not been pretty, but it has been gritty," said ESPN's Jay Bilas with about three minutes remaining in the Tar Heels' win.

That might as well be their motto this season, because nothing about this effort was new. The Tar Heels have struggled to make and defend the three all year long, they don't force many turnovers and Hicks seems to be in foul trouble every game. Yet, they rebound so well that they win far more often than they lose.

Summing up the game (and their season to date, for that matter) in a 30-second nutshell, there was a North Carolina possession midway through the second half that featured six offensive rebounds and zero points.

Despite all of those missed opportunities, the Tar Heels made eight straight free throws in the final 25 seconds to win at Cameron Indoor for the first time in four years, greatly enhancing their (previously weak) case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The win was so big that head coach Roy Williams even hit the dab in the locker room, as captured on UNC's Instagram:

Since before the season began, the Tar Heels were one of the favorites to win it all. But their computer resume hasn't provided much support for the eye test.

Prior to Saturday night, the Tar Heels had just two RPI Top 50 winshome games against Maryland and Miami. And with Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Temple rapidly fading, those were North Carolina's only two victories over teams that will definitely make the NCAA tournament.

Meanwhile, the other 10 candidates for a spot on the top line all have at least six RPI Top 50 wins, and most of them have eight or more. It was huge for North Carolina to clinch the ACC with its first marquee road win of the season, but was it enough for a No. 1 seed?

Does it even matter?

We can argue whether they deserve a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed as things presently stand, but there's no arguing the Tar Heels have more talent than any other team in the country.

"With the regular season now in the rear-view mirror, confidence will go a long way toward winning a national championship, and the Tar Heels look like a top contender to cut down the nets," wrote Sporting News' Troy Machir after the game.

Johnson is a legitimate candidate for National Player of the Year and has averaged an absurd 23.5 points and 20.0 rebounds per game against Duke this year. Paige has struggled for the past two months, but we have three other seasons' worth of evidence that he's doggone good. Berry has quietly had a phenomenal sophomore season. Jackson is the best NBA prospect on the roster.

The best seventh man in the country, Theo Pinson (left), and a highly touted freshman who barely plays (Kenny Williams)
The best seventh man in the country, Theo Pinson (left), and a highly touted freshman who barely plays (Kenny Williams)Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Hicks is probably the nation's best sixth man. Pinson is definitely the nation's best seventh man. And Joel James—a 6'11", 280-pound senior who would be the primary interior weapon on at least 80 percent of rosters—didn't even get off the bench Saturday.

You may have heard a thousand times in the past four months that there isn't a dominant team in college basketball this season, but with this much talent, North Carolina might be the one team that could flip the switch and breeze to a national championship.

The Tar Heels aren't matchup-proofa team like Baylor that has the size to hang with them on the glass and the coaching to throw an effective zone at them would seem to be their kryptonitebut no team is.

And here's something everyone seems to forget when discussing title contenders: The Final Four and national championship are being played at NRG Stadium, which is where three-pointers go to die, as documented by Ken Pomeroy last March. If the Tar Heels can get to Houston, their ability to crash the glass and score in the paint in that spacious dome would then make them the favorites to win it all.

That's admittedly a big leap to make just hours after a four-point win in which they shot poorly from the field, but now that they have proved they can win a rock fight away from home against a quality opponent, the Carolina blue sky is the limit for these Tar Heels.


Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.