UNC's 3-Point Emergence in IU Blowout Takes Already Great Offense to Scary Level

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 26, 2016

Mar 25, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Nate Britt (0) and guard Marcus Paige (5) react during the second half in a semifinal game against the Indiana Hoosiers in the East regional of the NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The juggernaut unleashed on Indiana on Friday night in Philadelphia turned the Harbaugh brothers into boo birds and the Tar Heels into quite possibly the title favorites.

The one Achilles' heel for North Carolina, the numbers scream at us, is that Roy Williams' team struggles to hit a dadgum three-pointer. Marcus Paige, formerly known as a knockdown shooter, has seen the rim shrink in his senior season and given defenses small doses of relief. "Small" because despite entering the night making just slightly better than 31 percent of their threes, the advanced numbers say the Heels were still the fifth-best offense in college basketball.

Well, the numbers just got scarier.

Paige had fire coming off his fingertips Friday night, knocking down his first four threes and then watching his teammates follow suit. The Heels didn't miss a three until the final minute of the first half—they made their first seven—and the Hoosiers never had a chance in a 101-86 clinic that put Paige and his crew one win away from the program's first Final Four since 2009.

"If they play like that, even remotely close to that, then they're going to be very, very hard to beat," IU coach Tom Crean said.

Marcus Paige lets it fly.
Marcus Paige lets it fly.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Heels have rewritten the narrative that has followed this group over the last few years. They relied so much on Paige in his sophomore and junior seasons that if he wasn't hitting then it probably wasn't going to be a good night.

This season, Brice Johnson discovered he's an All-American talent, and now the offense is built around a trio of big men that score efficiently off post-ups and gobble up missed shots.

So what's a defense to do when these dudes are hitting threes?

"When we're hitting shots, it's tough," Paige said. "Our inside game, that's our bread and butter we use to try to impose our will on the game. So when they have to worry about us making shots too, it makes it a lot better. We always preach balance, but we haven't had great balance this year.

"So when we hit shots, we're tough."

Once the Hoosiers had to give into that reality—that the Heels were going to make shots—the big men got space and buckets. Johnson shook off a slow start to score 20 points. Kennedy Meeks busted out of a slump and scored 15.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Brice Johnson #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels heads for the net as Thomas Bryant #31 of the Indiana Hoosiers defends during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 i
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"The threes hurt us, no question about that, but the post-ups, they destroyed us," Crean said. "We couldn't overcome that."

Even when the Heels started regressing toward the mean late in the game and missed three three-point shots in one possession, they came away with all three offensive boards and Johnson ended up on the free-throw line.

Indiana couldn't keep UNC off the free-throw line either. North Carolina was in the bonus before the first media timeout of the second half. The Hoosiers couldn't guard the UNC big men, so they fouled—27 times. And IU fans booed—a lot. That even included the Harbaugh brothers behind the IU bench.

It wouldn't have mattered much if the Hoosiers had received a kinder whistle. Because when the Heels eventually missed some shots, they grabbed 15 of their 30 misses, which is only slightly better than their season-long average.

Yes, even when they miss, they often still end up scoring.

But that's the norm. A new normal (or really, an old one) would be Paige draining threes from all over the floor.

Paige made 6-of-9 attempts, which is the most threes he's made in a game since his sophomore season. He also passed some guy named Michael Jordan and now sits 12th on UNC's all-time scoring list.

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Marcus Paige caught fire in the first half with 4 triples! https://t.co/5NI8rZrqQU

Justin Jackson, who has struggled with his shot this year as well, also got in on the fun and made two threes, and the Heels shot 11-of-20 from deep as a team.

"To see your leader out there smiling and shooting the ball the way he was and being aggressive, you can't really do anything but pick up your game," Jackson said of Paige.

The story of this college basketball season has been there are no elite teams. But what was on display Friday in Philly sure looked like a pretty darn good product. Meanwhile, Kansas seems to be wrecking that storyline on the other side of the bracket.

North Carolina now has the second-best offense in college basketball—and the best left in the bracket, according to kenpom.com—and the UNC defense has evolved into one of the best Williams has had in Chapel Hill.

The Heels cannot match KU's winning streak—it's 17 to eight—but you might as well throw those numbers out if these two teams meet on the final night of the season in Houston.

And you just might throw those UNC shooting numbers out too.

Because it became obvious early Friday night that Paige had left all those misses behind when he trailed on a fast break and ended up with the ball when point guard Joel Berry fumbled it against no defense. Paige was swarmed by Hoosiers, but he shot a three anyway, and it splashed through for his third straight make.

"After I'd hit two in a row, I haven't hit two in a row in a long time," he said. "To knock down two [in a] row, I thought, uh oh, I might mess around and make a couple more."

If he keeps shooting like that, Paige may mess around and bring another title to Chapel Hill.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.


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