What does it take to become an NCAA Tournament champion? There’s no one definitive answer. Being a very good team is smart ass answer, but it’s right. And the North Carolina Tar Heels are probably finally feeling like that kind of team as the regular season comes to a close.
The season ended with a 76-72 win for the Tar Heels at Duke, a first win for seniors like Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a rare win for the Tar Heels against Duke in general, as the rivalry has been fairly one sided since 2010. These aren’t the Tyler Hansbrough-Danny Green days of 2006-2009 when North Carolina won there four years in a row, setting the foundations for the 2009 national championship.
North Carolina win their first regular season title since 2012, and while winning the ACC is nice, the goals for Roy Williams and his players is very different. Five time national champions and twice since Williams took the head coaching job. But there hasn’t been a Final Four since 2009 and no Elite Eight since 2012. Last season North Carolina made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2012. This is a group hungry for success. For guys like Johnson and Paige, it’s a chance to leave their mark on the proud history of this program before they head off to the pros, in the NBA or somewhere else.
And while the 2016 version of Duke isn’t the one that won the national championship last season (with the help of very lenient officials in the final against Wisconsin), considering how difficult it’s been for this group of guys not just to beat Duke but finish out games in general, dropping big leads left and right in crucial moments, this win that included 18 points and 21 rebounds from Johnson, the team’s leading scorer this season, might be the final touch necessary to make this group of guys, that includes Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks in the core group, to believe this just might be their year, without any super team standing in the way.
And it’s not just the win at Duke. Winning away from home is something that matters when it’s the NCAA Tournament we’re talking about. Yes, North Carolina lost at Louisville, Virginia, and Notre Dame in conference play, but never blown out and often it was up to them giving up the lead. The lost once at home (Duke with some weird play calling by Williams), and also got wins on the road against Florida State and Virginia Tech. Not the best of teams, but difficult enough to count for something.
With the ACC regular season championship settled, it might mean being #1 which hasn’t happened in a long time for the Tar Heels, although it doesn’t necessarily mean a more comfortable route towards Houston. They’re not a 3-point shooting team like many of those going on crazy runs tend to be, but their defense can be good when everyone is on the same page, and their offense is one of the best in the nation. No one has ever been hurt by being excellent on the boards, and it might not be trendy, including no one-year freshman phenom, but North Carolina might win it all in a little bit of an old fashioned way.