UNC Basketball: Keys for Tar Heels Round of 64 opener against Iona

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CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MARCH 15: Luke Maye #32 and Nassir Little #5 celebrate with teammate Brandon Robinson #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels after a three point shot against the Duke Blue Devils during their game in the semifinals of the 2019 Men’s ACC Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 15, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Onward to Day Two of the 2019 NCAA Tournament! With No. 1 UNC matching up with No. 16 Iona, what do the Tar Heels need to do to avoid an early exit?

The No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels enter Saturday’s opening round matchup with the No. 16 Iona Gaels with a single mission, a mantra constantly reinforced by coach Roy Williams whenever the NCAA Tournament rolls around: “If we play well, maybe they’ll let us stay around and play another one.” 

Set to tip off against the MAAC Champion Gaels in a late 9:20 pm EST timeslot on Saturday, North Carolina is well aware that they have the clear advantage — seeding, coaching, talent, history, etc. — over the small mid-major from New York.

Winners of 15 of their last 17 games, including various marquee wins over the ACC’s very best and several Tournament teams, UNC is receiving contributions from players young and old, albeit in a shortened rotation as the heightened-competition demands of them. Cam Johnson (16.9 points, 46.5 3P%) is still lighting nets on fire with merciless authority; Coby White (16.3 points, 4.2 assists) is streaking to the basket and flaring out to the perimeter, making shots where he may; and, speaking of Maye, Luke is averaging a double-double (14.7 points, 10.5 rebounds) on the season, surging in the rebounding department as of late.

UNC as a whole, beyond its three top scorers, is playing phenomenally well on both sides of the ball (seventh offensively, tenth defensively), a testament to the growth underwent throughout the regular season.

But Iona has been successful too, which is why Tim Cluess’ squad is returning to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive bid, the fifth of his nine-year tenure with the Gaels. After starting the year with a dismal 7-15 record, Iona ran off 10 consecutive wins, including a 21-point win over Monmouth in the MAAC title game.

Led by the upperclassmen trio of E.J. Crawford (17.9 points, 5.1 rebounds), Ricky McGill (15.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists) and Tajuan Agee (13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds), the Gaels overcome a lack of defense (275th nationally) with a relentless, fast-paced offensive attack (48th in adjusted tempo) that squares of all five starters along the perimeter. They’re a squad that won’t be afraid to go out and run against anyone, including the Midwest Region‘s top seed.

North Carolina, obvious advantages aside, will need to stay focused as they gear up for their First Round bout in Columbus, Ohio. What does UNC need to do in order to move on to the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament?

(All statistics are courtesy of sports-reference, kenpom.com, ncaa.com and Synergy Sports.) 

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