How No. 1 will fall: North Carolina

March, 13, 2012
Entering the year, I thought North Carolina would be where Kentucky is right now. The No. 1 overall seed. The favorite entering the Big Dance.

When Harrison Barnes announced that he was coming back for another year, it was all set. Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller were going to lead North Carolina to a national title.

Few reasons to doubt that eventuality.

But the Tar Heels have been vulnerable throughout the year. Not “they can’t compete for the national title” vulnerable. But “they should be more dominant” vulnerable.

[+] EnlargeUNC's John Henson
Paul Abell/US PRESSWIREThe wrist injury John Henson suffered against Maryland in the ACC tourney could pain North Carolina in the NCAAs.
They’re stacked with NBA talent. They average 82.0 point per game (second nationally). But they’ve lost to squads without that pro pedigree.

So how will the Tar Heels lose?

With the exception of the January blowout at Florida State, North Carolina scored at least 72 points in its losses. So the Tar Heels won’t lose to a team that can’t compete at an elite level on offense.

A successful opponent will also need tough players who can secure second-chance opportunities and keep the Tar Heels (they average 15.7 offensive rebounds per game) off the offensive glass. Not an easy task. When they get second chances, they’re tough to beat.

Henson’s health (wrist injury) has to be a major concern. The ACC’s defensive player of the year is averaging 13.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. His absence had an obvious impact on the Tar Heels in Sunday's loss to Florida State.

Roy Williams says the junior and possible lottery pick might play in the NCAA tournament. But it’s impossible to know how the wrist injury will affect him. The Tar Heels have held opponents to a 39 percent shooting clip from the field, No. 2 in the ACC. With Henson unavailable, the Seminoles shot 59 percent against the Tar Heels in Sunday’s conference tournament final.

They’re already missing an injured Dexter Strickland, a loss that’s affected their limited depth. A subpar Henson will only increase the likelihood of an upset.

But even if he’s back, the Tar Heels could run into trouble in the NCAA tournament. They’ve struggled from the 3-point line in some of their tight games. A 68 percent mark from the charity stripe could hurt the Tar Heels, too, especially since three of their five losses were single-digit defeats.

They have all of the tools, however, to make a run to New Orleans.

A team with a potent offense and a talented frontcourt that can rebound could put the Tar Heels in a tough spot.

But if you’re looking for reasons to doubt them on paper, you won’t find many.

Their potential for falling short of expectations is simple. Sometimes they don’t rise to the occasion. All that talent. All that ability. Yet they’ve been beaten up by Florida State. They couldn’t finish against Duke. They couldn’t run with UNLV. They needed a clutch play against Kentucky and couldn’t get one.

Yes, an opponent will have to play a near-flawless game to beat the Tar Heels. But an early loss is not unfathomable.

The notion that the Tar Heels have too much talent to fall has been proved false multiple times already this season.



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