North Carolina opened the season ranked in the top 10, then struggled with inconsistency before seemingly finding itself in the ACC tournament. It won two NCAA tournament games and gave itself a chance to reach the Elite Eight before a final late-game collapse ended its season. A look back:
Q: Why did the Tar Heels get sent home?
A: North Carolina lost to a better team, the superior team, in Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament West Region semifinal. There’s a reason the Tar Heels were a No. 4 seed and why Wisconsin was a No. 1 seed.
That said, UNC gave itself a chance and executed its gameplan with success. It created transition scoring chances. It made things difficult for long stretches on the Wisconsin offense.
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Ultimately, though, UNC just wasn’t good enough to get over the hump and finish the game. That was a theme throughout the season. This team lost second-half leads against Duke, twice, and at Louisville and against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament championship.
It happened again, this time in the Tar Heels’ final loss of the season.
Q: Looking back, what were the critical flaws in this team?
A: The Tar Heels were at their best at the end of the year, when Marcus Paige was healthier and when freshmen Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II were emerging to become more reliable difference-makers.
It would have been interesting to see what could have been had UNC developed more quickly. The ceiling was limited because it just took a while for the pieces to mesh this season.
Ultimately, though, a few things doomed this team more than any other. Foul trouble was one. UNC fouled too much and often didn’t get to the free-throw line enough offensively. On the inside, the Tar Heels never found their desired consistency with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
And though Jackson and Berry did come on late, Paige still didn’t have that much help on the perimeter.
Q: Looking ahead to next season, who is coming in to address those flaws?
A: Good question. UNC’s recruiting efforts have been hampered because of the cloud of the NCAA investigation that hangs over the program – and over the entire athletic department. Roy Williams said he has had difficulty getting top prospects to even visit campus in recent times.
If the Tar Heels land Brandon Ingram, the lanky wing forward from Kinston who is considered one of the top prospects in the nation, that would help. UNC has been recruiting Ingram for a while now, though, and he still hasn’t committed.
UNC’s best hope for addressing its flaws is for the team to return intact – and the likelihood of that is strong, given that no one is projected as a first-round NBA draft pick – and for guys to improve over the summer.
Q: Given the lofty preseason ranking, did the team meet expectations, fall short or exceed them?
A: There were plenty of times, in February especially, when UNC looked as if it’d be fortunate to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Instead, it reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in three years and was in position to move on until Wisconsin took control late.
Ultimately, the preseason expectations – UNC entered the season ranked No. 6 nationally – were probably a little bit too high. Those expectations assumed that Paige would easily replicate what he did as a sophomore, that Johnson or Meeks, or both, would become a consistently reliable post presence and that Jackson would be the player he was at the end of the season throughout the entire season.
Reaching the Sweet 16 was probably about right for this team.