UNC will be a part of the inaugural class of the PK80 Tournament, a competition honoring Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. The PK80 includes 16 teams separated into two brackets. Carolina is playing in the “Victory Bracket” with Michigan State, Oregon and Arkansas, while the “Motion Bracket” includes Duke, Gonzaga and Florida. The Tar Heels (3-0) begin the tournament on Thanksgiving against Portland.
About the Pilots
Portland, which plays in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga, is 2-1 this season. The Pilots lost to Portland State in their opener before beating Walla Walla University and Oregon Tech. Portland went 11-22 last year while picking up only two conference wins in head coach Terry Porter’s first season with the team. Porter joined the Pilots after brief coaching stints with five NBA teams.
Portland was not a good basketball team last year, and the Pilots aren’t expected to be good this year either. Portland was picked by league coaches to finish second-to-last in the ten-team West Coast Conference. The Pilots didn’t land a single player on Preseason All-West Coast teams either. That’s not to say there aren’t good players on the team, though.
Players to watch
Portland’s strength lies in its backcourt. The Pilots shoot 44 percent from the three-point line and average 17 assists per game. The catalyst is 6-7 guard/forward Josh McSwiggan. The Englishman averages 14.3 points to lead the team while dishing out 2.7 assists per game. McSwiggan’s partner in the backcourt is sophomore Franklin Porter, who is scoring 11.0 points per game this season.
Portland doesn’t get a lot of scoring from its forwards, but it does get exceptional rim protection. The Pilots rank 12th in the country in blocked shots with 7 per game. A big part of the block party is 7-2, 250-pound senior center Philipp Hartwich. The massive German pulls down an impressive 12 rebounds while scoring 8 points per game. Tahirou Diabate, a 6-9 freshman from Mali, chips in 7.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest.
About the PK80
Should the Tar Heels avoid what would be the biggest upset of the year in Portland, the defending national champions would advance to play either Arkansas or Oklahoma. The more likely option seems to be Arkansas, a team that led UNC by 5 with 3 minutes left in the Round of 32 of last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks are 3-0 this year under sixth-year head coach Mike Anderson. Jaylen Barford has been the star so far for Arkansas. The senior averages 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from three. The Razorbacks would be the first true test of the year for Carolina.
Should Oklahoma win, the Tar Heels would have to look out for super senior Khadeem Lattin. Lattin, a 6-9 forward, is averaging 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest this year. The high-scoring Sooners have started 2-0 under longtime head coach Lon Kruger.
On the other side of the bracket, UConn will play Oregon in a clash of unbeatens. Head coach Kevin Ollie has lead the Huskies to a 3-0 start this year. A big part of the early-season success has been junior guard Jalen Adams, who is scoring 15.0 points per game so far.
Oregon, which lost to UNC in the Final Four last year, brings back just 19 percent of its minutes this year. The 4-0 Ducks are full of young talent, including top prospect Troy Brown (13.0 ppg) and 2016-17 starter Payton Prichard (12.5 ppg), a sophomore. Coach Dana Altman, coming off the program’s most successful season, is in his eighth season with the team.
DePaul and Michigan State make up the last first-round matchup of the Victory Bracket. DePaul, picked to finish ninth in the Big East, is 1-2 this year. Dave Leitao, who won ACC coach of the year with Virginia in 2007, leads the Blue Demons. Max Strus is the high scorer (13.7 ppg) for a low-scoring DePaul team.
Michigan State, the fourth-ranked team in the country, is the favorite to win the PK80. The Spartans, under Hall of Famer Tom Izzo, have started the season 2-1 after a loss to Duke. Michigan State is led by Wooden Award favorite Miles Bridges, a do-it-all forward who turned down a chance to be a lottery pick to return to East Lansing for his sophomore year.
Arkansas was three minutes from the Sweet 16 last year. Instead, a 7-0 closing run ensured it was the Tar Heels that were on to Memphis, and then Phoenix to claim the program’s sixth NCAA championship. Had a Joel Berry II drive been called a charge instead of a no-call, it could’ve easily been the Razorbacks dancing and the Tar Heels scratching their heads.
Arkansas has a chance to avenge the season-ending loss, should it take care of Oklahoma. The Razorbacks are one of the hottest teams in the country, and the Round of 32 rematch would make for an exciting game between two programs that love to run.
Kenny Williams’ hot shooting
Kenny Williams officially announced his return from injury Monday against Stanford. The junior guard was on fire against the Cardinal, scoring a career-high 20 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting. Williams has always been known as a great defender, but a consistent jump shot could ensure a permanent starting spot, even when Cameron Johnson returns.
This tournament could give Williams a chance to prove his offensive game is just as intimidating as his defense. The Tar Heels need a three-point shooter to emerge in Johnson’s absence, and Williams could be the answer.
Final Four-like matchups
The PK80 features three of last year’s Final Four teams in Oregon, Gonzaga and UNC, and the tournament could be a preview of this season’s. Should UNC and Michigan State win the games they’re favored in, the two national heavyweights would collide in a blockbuster championship game.
Roy Williams has historically had Izzo’s number, but Michigan State is on the short list of title favorites. The game would give UNC a great opportunity to gauge itself early in the season. Plus, a win would provide an excellent boost to its NCAA Tournament résumé.
UNC and Michigan State will hold serve in their early-round matchups. UNC will blow by Portland and will overpower Arkansas at the end of the game. Michigan State will blast DePaul and win against an overmatched Oregon team. In the final, UNC will find a way to win. The Tar Heels have looked exceptional so far this year, and the veteran team will win 87-83 against a young Spartan team still figuring things out.
Photo by Caleb Jones