Tar Heels set for Tinseltown drama

UNC sent out West, for a potentially awkward reunion

North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis speaking to his players during a time out in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

North Carolina won the ACC regular season, advanced to the ACC Tournament championship game and picked up a one-seed in the West region of the NCAA Tournament.

For a team that missed out on the postseason last year, it’s an incredible bounce-back performance—one that earned Hubert Davis the ACC Coach of the Year Award.

Still, some Tar Heel faithful may have a feeling of unease as March Madness opens.

Part of it is the loss to NC State in the ACC title game, where a Wolfpack team playing for the fifth straight day led pretty much from the outset, controlling the game and scoring at will against a UNC defense that had ranked among the nation’s best.

Was it an off night or a blueprint for teams in the West to follow?

One reason for the improvement from last year to this is an overhaul of locker room chemistry, with the transfer portal working overtime in both directions to clear out bad blood and construct a roster that, by all accounts, works well together on and off the court. Davis has preached shutting out distractions from the time he took the job in Chapel Hill, and distractions abounded last year.

Now, the ex is showing up in UNC’s DMs again, at the worst possible time. If the Tar Heels are going to return to the Final Four for the second time in Davis’ three years as head coach, they will most likely have to do it by defeating Caleb Love and 2-seed Arizona.

Taylor Swift used to have a banner in the rafters of Crypto.com Arena, site of the West Regional championship, commemorating her 16 sold out shows there. It was removed in 2020 to make room for the latest Lakers championship banner. But “Bad Blood” will still be a major topic of discussion if the West comes down to Love and the Heels.

Both teams have plenty of work to do to get to that showdown, however.

Opening round matchup

On Selection Sunday, the Heels weren’t sure of their opponent in the first round. Co-16 seeds Howard and Wagner were playing in Dayton’s First Four earlier in the week to earn a trip to Charlotte and a date with Carolina, with Wagner earning the win. 

That dodged even more bad blood for the Heels in Howard, with former Duke Blue Devil Kenny Blakeney coaching the Bison to their second straight NCAA berth. 

Wagner might be the tougher draw, stylewise, however—winning by rockfight as the Seahawks slow things down and wear teams out. The UVA of the NEC, Wagner is No. 12 in the nation in three-point defense, No. 11 in avoiding fouls. The Seahawks don’t shoot well and have just seven scholarship players, but they present a matchup problem to opponents.

Later in the weekend

Assuming UNC survives whichever 16-seed it plays, the Heels will get the winner of Mississippi State and Michigan State.

For some reason, the Selection Committee lives to put Tom Izzo in the path of a Tobacco Road team. Tom Izzo has coached at Michigan State since 1995 and gone to 26 NCAA Tournaments. If the Spartans and Heels meet in round two, it will be the twelfth time Izzo has faced UNC or Duke in the tournament, or roughly every other year.

Michigan State was a bit of a surprise to even make the field, which probably means that Izzo will spring an upset or two, so the Heels need to tread carefully.

Mississippi State has a tough defense and a bigger frontline than Carolina’s, as well as three-point marksman Josh Hubbard lighting it up from outside.

Red flags

In the ACC Tournament, UNC raised another concern, relying almost solely on ACC Player of the Year RJ Davis and big man Armando Bacot. Both are good choices to lean on, but Bacot and Davis scored UNC’s last 19 points in the semifinals and 24 straight points in the title game.

The Heels will need more of a contribution from a deep supporting cast. In the two wins over Duke this year, the heroes were Harrison Ingram, who scored 21 in the first game and Cormac Ryan, who hit six three-pointers in the second.

UNC needs help from the ensemble cast in order to go deep into the tournament. Otherwise, the Heels could find themselves as the most vulnerable top seed as early as the second round.