2011 NCAA Tournament: How Kentucky Helped Turn UNC into a Title Contender

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2011 NCAA Tournament: How Kentucky Helped Turn UNC into a Title Contender
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
After an incredibly slow start, the Tar Heels are finally rolling thanks to improved confidence and chemistry.

Many of you don’t tune in to college basketball until the calendar turns to March.  So you may not know that UNC started the season 4-3, with their only wins coming against Lipscomb, Hofstra, UNC-Asheville and the College of Charleston.  It would have been even worse had the Tar Heels not escaped, in an extremely close game against Charleston. Obviously, the current team is much improved over that one, and Kentucky has a lot to do with that.

Why was UNC so bad?

In the first weeks of the year, UNC looked destined to have a season as bad as the previous one, in which they lost 17 games and failed to make the tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. On Nov. 19, they lost to Minnesota in Puerto Rico. They then repeated the performance in a Nov. 21 loss to Vanderbilt in the same city. As the Carolina blue sky began to fall, UNC lost again—this time at Illinois.

Statistically speaking, the Tar Heels' biggest problem was shooting. They shot below 40 percent against the Gophers and Commodores in the Puerto Rico tip-off. Their touch hardly improved when they returned to the contiguous 48, making only a third of their threes and less than half of their free throws. However, the root cause of their issues was a lack of maturity.

To start the year, the starting roster included no seniors and only two juniors. That means most of the team’s collective memory was made up of their awful 2009-2010. As a result, when their season went south early, they didn’t have the experience to rebound. Instead, they began pushing things and spiraled out of control. This led to missed shots, foul trouble and innumerable mistakes. The best example of this futility was supposed-phenom Harrison Barnes, going 6-33 combined in the team’s three early losses.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Tyler Zeller helped get UNC back on track with a stellar outing against the Kentucky Wildcats. He'll have to match his prior performance in the rematch if the Heels are to get to the Final Four.

How did they turn it around?

Remarkably, the Heels flipped a switch when Advent began, starting with a win over Kentucky (ranked 11th at the time) on Dec. 4. The biggest factor in that stunner was seven-footer Tyler Zeller, the most experienced starter in Chapel Hill. He took advantage of Kentucky’s lack of a big man to tally a career-high 27 points, including a go-ahead free throw in the final minute. Also, UNC was aided by the fact that Kentucky was one of the few teams with less experience than the Tar Heels.

Coming off that spark of success, the team strung together a series of wins and bonded in the process. Also, Barnes gained the necessary confidence to finally come into his own and live up to the hype. In the three months following the season-changing win, Carolina lost only thrice—bounding up the polls along the way.

Now, they are rolling through the tournament and look like a title contender. If they do make it to the top, let’s hope they give the Kentucky Wildcats their due credit during the celebration speech.

For more analysis, follow me on Twitter: @JacobFeldman4

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