Ahead of Thursday's NCAA Tournament opening-round games and Friday's opener for North Carolina, three of our veteran men's basketball writers hopped into a Slack channel and broke down this year's postseason — from early opponents to biggest threats to UNC's chances of repeating. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
C Jackson Cowart: So it's finally here, huh? Eleven months after North Carolina cut down the nets, we're running it back with a whole new field. It feels like Christmas all over again.
We found out on Sunday that UNC (25-10, 11-7 ACC) will enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the West Region after losing to Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed, in the ACC Tournament final. More importantly, perhaps, they'll play the first two rounds in the nearby Spectrum Center in Charlotte.
Turner, I'll start with you. You think the Tar Heels deserved their seeding?
Turner Walston: Of course they deserved a No. 2 seed. You can’t tell me Carolina is not one of the eight best teams in the nation entering the tournament. People point to 10 losses, but they don’t tell the whole story. This team had more high quality wins than anyone else and the toughest strength of schedule in the nation.
Sam Doughton: It's appropriate given the UNC’s body of work this year — particularly getting the Charlotte slot over Duke. UVa., Villanova and Kansas are all easily more impressive on paper and pass the eye test, and Xavier, while stumbling toward the end of the season, has also shown itself worthy of that No. 1 slot. I think a No. 2 is exactly where UNC should be.
CC: I tend to agree. There's a discussion to be had on whether the Tar Heels fall to a No. 3 seed without that Duke win last Friday...but ultimately they won so it doesn't matter. I think it's tough to have that many Quadrant 1 wins (lol) and have the best strength of schedule in the country, coming off a championship, and not be on the 1- or 2-line. Putting UNC as the fifth-best team in the final team rankings is a strong statement from the committee, but I can't argue with the logic.
TW: If I’m not mistaken, except for Wofford — which was a bad loss — every team UNC lost to is in the NCAA tournament
CC: Poor Terriers.
SD: Michigan State, Duke, UVa. (x2), Florida State, Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, and Miami. All in the tournament, minus Wofford, which bowed out of the SoCon tournament in the semis by one point to the eventual tournament champs, UNCG (go Coach Miller!). Coupled with all those Q1 wins, you can’t argue with the body of work.
CC: So you're saying they won't lose to Lipscomb?
SD: You mean the Lipscomb team making its first NCAA appearance of all time, the one that's 0-10 vs. Top 25 opponents in its entire history in Division-I and needed double OT to defeat a 7-25 USC Upstate early this season? This Tar Heel team can lose to anyone, but I don’t think it’ll happen on Friday
TW: Yeah, they aren’t losing to Lipscomb, but Friday’s game is an important opportunity for the Tar Heels to decide who they are going to be in the NCAA Tournament. The opponent almost doesn’t matter; Carolina has to impose tempo and play its game. Get their legs underneath them and pace themselves for a deep run.
CC: That's a good point. Sam, you and I are covering that game, but it almost feels like we're already preparing for either No. 7 seed Texas A&M or No. 10 seed Providence, UNC's potential opponents in the second round. Maybe everybody is overlooking this Lipscomb team, but I think it's for good reason. It feels like it has the inevitability of a 1-16 matchup.
SD: One fun fact about Lipscomb, before we move on: Theo Pinson used to be teammates with one of their starting guards, Michael Buckland. They played together at High Point Wesleyan. But Theo made it clear on Tuesday that those high school bonds have frayed a bit the past few years: “We’re not friends. He’s tried to reach out to me, but we’re not really cool right now.”
Buckland did tweet at Theo on Selection Sunday once the matchups were announced, but Theo said he doesn’t get on Twitter for stuff like that.
CC: Theo's going to absolutely tear apart the Fighting Mustache Brush defense.
Okay, so let's look past the Lipscomb matchup, if we may. Which opponent do you think should worry the Tar Heels more, Texas A&M or Providence?
SD: Providence, for sure. Coming off a Big East tournament final appearance, they’ve got the hot hand out of those two teams. A&M had some big moments early in the season, but the Aggies struggled against mediocre competition throughout SEC play. Providence just beat this region's No. 1 seed and a Creighton team that most expect to give UVa. all it can handle in the Round of 32.
CC: Providence definitely seems like the hotter team at this point, though both teams have a history if disappointing in the tournament (I'll never forget putting A&M in my first-ever Final Four...oh, the agony). It'd be a nice rematch, too, with the Tar Heels having beat Providence in the second round two years ago en route to the title game. It seems this program often treads in nostalgic waters.
As a whole, though, this bracket certainly feels like the weakest of the four. The committee definitely rewarded its fifth-ranked team with a relatively easy path back to the Final Four. Still, is there a team that gives you pause in picking UNC to win the region?
TW: Michigan is red-hot right now. They’ve won nine in a row and beat two top-10 teams to win the Big Ten Tournament. I’m always going to be wary of a team that is clearly playing in rhythm and peaking at the right time. Plus, they’ll want to get back the loss they suffered in the Smith Center in November — and avenge some NCAA Tournament history.
SD: Michigan is my pick, as well, for exactly the reasons Turner mentioned. There’s some concern on my end about whether the week off from the Big Ten tournament has messed with their rhythm, but the Wolverines would have to win two straight to even play UNC. So if the Tar Heels come across them in the Sweet 16, that won’t matter.
TW: I forgot that was two weeks ago now! They took an extra long time out, I guess.
SD: In the words of the late and great Woody Durham: Turner, that was a “technical foul! technical foul!”
CC: Aside from traumatizing Wolverine fans, I totally get the Michigan love. I really do. But aren't we forgetting about Xavier, the actual No. 1 seed in the region? The Musketeers haven't lost to a team not named Providence or Villanova since November, and that loss was to Arizona State, another tournament team. If we're going to praise UNC for only losing to tournament teams, Xavier deserves the same love. I'm not saying they're going all the way, but they've got one of the best offenses in the country and best players in Trevon Bluiett. They're the top seed for a reason.
SD: Xavier has certainly earned the top seed in the West for a reason, but I hesitate to put them as a the biggest threat because of the way they’ve looked in the games of late. Those losses to Villanova were devastating blowouts, and they struggled to put away teams like DePaul and Georgetown, two pretty mediocre Big East teams. KenPom has them rated as the 15th-best team in the country. The Wolverines? No. 10.
And we haven’t even touched on Gonzaga, which KenPom has sitting one spot above UNC at No. 7 in his overall rankings. How crazy of an Elite Eight matchup would that be?
CC: I can see the "redemption" headlines now...
TW: I have my eye on Purdue as another good team that could challenge for its first national title, if we’re talking about other championship picks. West Virginia is very talented and maybe even under-seeded as a No. 5 seed. I think they could challenge Villanova and slip into the Elite Eight or Final Four. Ohio State could also pull the upset over Xavier in the West.
CC: There are only three teams that KenPom ranks higher than UNC in offensive and defensive efficiency: Villanova, Duke and...Purdue. That's a good call, Turner.
I've had my eyes on one team all year, and that's Cincinnati. Everybody gushes over Virginia's top-ranked defense, and rightfully so, but the Bearcat defense is almost just as nasty. They slow it down, too, but they almost feels more pace-protected than the Cavaliers, if that makes sense. They've lost four games all year — later avenging losses to Houston and Wichita State — and North Carolina native Gary Clark is a beast offensively. Everyone's sleeping on Cincinnati, and I'm not sure why.
SD: I also think the Bearcats are great, for what it's worth. You know, the more I think about the West, the more worried I get about each potential matchup. Houston or San Diego State would also not be a fun Sweet 16 game for the Heels should either pull off an upset over Michigan in the Round of 32. And, of course, neither would Michigan.
But looking at the bigger bracket, things could certainly be a lot worse. The Midwest with Kansas, Michigan State and Duke is deadly. The East is the most wide open to me. 'Nova I think is the heavy favorite, but I can talk myself into Purdue, Texas Tech, Wichita State or West Virginia as a Final Four team. And UVa. has to run through Creighton, Arizona/Kentucky and Tennessee/Cincinnati. Compared to all that, I think the Heels lucked out with their draw.
CC: It obviously won't be easy, but you're right. The West is definitely the "weakest" region, and the Tar Heels are drawing a lot of attention as the potential favorites to emerge. Is it deserved, though? Are we getting swept up in the hype, or can this team actually make its third straight Final Four?
TW: Yes, and it’s not a stretch at all. They’re the top-ranked No. 2 seed, and they drew the weakest No. 1 in Xavier. ‘Weak’ is relative, of course. But think about it: the junior class is 11-1 in the NCAA Tournament. This group knows how to win. Yes, they lost a lot from a year ago, but a year ago they’d lost a lot from a year before that. We know how hot this team can get. I think when they line up for a "for real" elimination game, we’re going to find out what they’re really made of.
SD: Yeah, 100 percent the Tar Heels can make another Final Four. Dare I say they are the favorites to do so out of the West. They’ve got the experience, they’ve got the shooting and they’ve got the stars. Do they have enough defense? They did in Brooklyn, and if that carries over, I don’t see any reason why they can’t go to a Southwest locale for the third year in a row.
CC: I've said it behind closed doors for weeks now but finally feel the confidence to put my weight behind it: I think this team is going back to the Final Four. You and I covered that team last year, Turner, and it just had a certain energy to it. It feels the same way this year. And I think the X-factor might be Kenny Williams, the only player who didn't see the court in last year's run. He's better in every facet — shooting, passing defending — than he was a year ago, and he'll be key to shutting down the top dog on those teams we ran through earlier. But if he's on? So is this team.
SD: For me, this year’s X-factor is the Tar Heels' big men off the bench . UNC will likely come across some hog-mollies in the post at different points in time should they go on another run to the Final Four. Luke Maye can do some work in the low post on offense, but can Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks step up and battle with these guys down low — getting put-back layups and dunks, cleaning up the boards and playing good enough defense to not let the Tar Heels get pushed around down there? If they can, I like UNC’s chances to go deep in this tournament.
TW: To me, the X-factor for UNC is Cameron Johnson. He’s played in one NCAA Tournament game in his entire college career, a Pittsburgh loss to Wisconsin. He played 14 minutes and scored two points. But that was a long time ago, on a different team. Cam knows where his teammates have been, and he’s not going to want to let them down. He wants to experience that for himself. If he can let the game come to him, take good open looks and drive and float like he’s capable, this team can go a long, long way. If he tries to do too much, the Heels could get in trouble.
Beyond that, they have to stay committed on defense. They were great on that end of the floor in Brooklyn, and I think if they’d played Virginia when it wasn’t the fourth game in a row, they could have beaten them. Draw upon that success, take defense seriously and things will work out well.