Late Sunday night, Roy Williams recalled a conversation with Tim Duncan when the two were working with the U.S. national team. “Are you ABC?” the North Carolina coach asked. (For decades along Tobacco Road, “ABC” has stood for “anybody but Carolina.”)
Said Duncan, a droll Wake Forest alumnus: “I’m ABCD – anybody but Carolina and Duke.”
For ABCDs among us, this shapes up as another trying spring. Duke won the 2015 national championship. In the course of two weeks, North Carolina has gone from third choice to win this NCAA tournament to an even-money favorite, according to Bovada. As the Big Dance turns for Houston, the major remaining question has become CABC – can anybody beat Carolina?
The answer’s yes. Someone can. Someone might. This is college basketball, not the NBA. One bad game and you’re done. As good as these Heels have become, they’re still a six-loss team. The average number of losses for the past 15 NCAA champs is 4.93. And there were times, not so ancient, when Carolina was more a source of frustration than an irresistible force.
Williams has called this the least-appreciated good team he has coached. On Saturday, he said: “Probably the last two to three weeks I think things have changed. I felt like we were pretty doggone good before that. But I knew that we could get a heck of a lot better.”
Not many college teams can Flip The Switch so late in a season, but Carolina has done it before. The 2005 NCAA champs of May-Felton-McCants were so lax on defense in a regional final – they yielded 82 points to plodding Wisconsin; 15 days earlier, they’d lost to Georgia Tech 78-75 in the ACC semis – that Williams covered the rims at practice and had his team work on guarding somebody. That team went to St. Louis and won it all. His 2009 champs of Hansbrough-Lawson-Ellington were even less dedicated to defending, but their raging offense wouldn’t let them lose.
Carolina’s defensive numbers sometimes look worse because Williams – a rarity among latter-day coaches – wants his team to play blurry-fast. (Short possessions mean more possessions. More possessions mean more points for both sides.) If we go by Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings, Carolina is 21st in defense – same as in 2009 — but that’s low by Final Four standards. Since the KenPom ratings began in 2002, only the 2009 Heels have ranked outside the top 20 in defensive efficiency among national champs.
Carolina didn’t defend anyone to death in the East Regional. Indiana scored 86 points (and lost by 15). Notre Dame scored 74 despite trying to burn at least 28 seconds off the clock every trip. (Still lost by 14.) Carolina scores with such disdain it doesn’t have to guard much to win, but that offense has been skewed. Again per KenPom, the Heels rank 345th among 351 Division I teams in points scored via the 3-point shot.
The rout of Indiana was triggered by Marcus Paige’s four treys before the first TV timeout. He’s a fine shooter who has had a down season. Against Notre Dame, Paige made two treys. As a team, Carolina made four, none the second half. Still it scored on 19 of its final 20 possessions over as powerful a 13-minute span as the tournament has seen.
As fate would have it, Carolina’s next opponent is Syracuse, which dares opponents to make jump shots. If Paige is missing, the Orange’s 2-3 zone could become a boa constrictor. But there’s a catch to missed jump shots: Carolina is the nation’s third-best team at rebounding its misses. Syracuse is 337th at defensive rebounding. (Hoops axiom: It’s hard to rebound out of a zone.) Carolina is so ravenous underneath that Paige can be off and his team subsist on putbacks.
Beyond Syracuse, Oklahoma is great on the perimeter but no match for Carolina underneath. Villanova would be a bigger challenge, but the Wildcats cannot approximate the Heels’ talent. When the tournament began, I didn’t think Carolina would get through its regional, but times have changed and the Heels look great. The week ahead figures to leave the ABC crowd POOL – plumb out of luck.
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