The Field of 68 in the 2019 NCAA Tournament has been set! Dubbed a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, what does UNC’s road to a Final Four berth look like?
It is officially March now, with the NCAA’s Selection Committee punching in its 68 bids for the 2019 NCAA Tournament following the completion of all conference tournaments on Sunday. After much deliberation, the committee came to an agreement on the Tournament’s premier teams, rewarding the respectable resumés put forth by the Gonzaga Bulldogs and three teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference — Duke (No .1 overall), Virginia, and UNC .
North Carolina’s emergence as the Midwest Region’s top seed is an outcome that likely would have been viewed as nothing short of surprising if you were to measure opinions immediately after last year’s second-round exit and loss of veteran talent. For a team losing NBAers in Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson that would then have to rely on a group of (then) unproven freshmen, a No. 1 seed wasn’t even on the radar for most media members casting their preseason expectations last fall.
Boy, were we wrong.
After a season featuring a 27-6 record with prominent wins over Gonzaga, Duke, Virginia Tech, and Florida State, a share of the ACC regular season title, 16 Quadrant 1/2 wins (tied third-most), the top strength of schedule (per ESPN) and explosive offensive performances from a combination of Carolina upperclassmen and freshmen, the Tar Heels were recognized as one of the nation’s four best teams, with a 1-seed to show for it. The Tar Heels are a top seed for a record 17th time and an eighth time in 16 season under coach Roy Williams.
North Carolina has won 15 of their last 17 games, possess a unit with the seventh-best offense and tenth-best defense and the usual elite rebounding, and burgeoning performances from the shortened six-man rotation of Cameron Johnson (16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 threes), Coby White (16.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.4 threes), Luke Maye (14.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists), Nassir Little (9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds), Kenny Williams (8.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists) and Garrison Brooks (8.0 points, 5.6 rebounds). By all standards, UNC has had an excellent season and there’s still games left to be played.
What’s next for UNC won’t be easy. Immediate reactions to Sunday’s bracket reveal shared a common perception of one particular region.
The Midwest is a bloodbath:
(1) UNC vs. (16) Iona
(8) Utah State vs. (9) Washington
(5) Auburn vs. (12) New Mexico State
(4) Kansas vs. (13) Northeastern
(6) Iowa State vs. (11) Ohio State
(3) Houston vs. (14) Georgia State
(7) Wofford vs. (10) Seton Hall
(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Abilene Christian
By the will of the committee or whatever algorithmic data its members held as gospel, the Midwest Region sports three Blue Blood programs in UNC, Kentucky, and Kansas, teams who just so happen to own the most No. 1 seeds in the history of the Tournament (17, 12, 14, respectively). Additionally, UNC struggled offensively against Kentucky back in December, losing that matchup 80–72.
No big deal, right?
The region also features a Utah State team that ran roughshod over the MWC, the Pac-12’s regular season champ and tournament runner-up in Washington, an Auburn squad that just won the SEC title in a blitzing campaign, an Iowa State team that beat three Tournament teams to win the Big 12 tournament, one of the nation’s best defensive teams in Houston and a fire-breathing Wofford squad that UNC beat in its first game of the season.
This is no cakewalk.
For what it’s worth, history tends to favor Roy Williams whenever he coaches high-seeded Carolina teams. In the previous seven appearances as a 1-seed, he’s led UNC to the Elite Eight every single time, with five Final Four berths, four national title game appearances and three national championships.
(For those who really want to dig into superstition: UNC lost in the ACC Semifinals in each of the past three national title-winning years. The team that went on to win the ACC Tournament those three seasons? Duke.)
History aside, the Tar Heels have a long road ahead of them with several teams hoping to knock off the region’s top seed. Plenty of difficult matchups lie ahead for UNC.
So, what could a Final Four run look like for the Heels?