The Tar Heels don’t enjoy being embarrassed, let alone in their home stadium. North Carolina is, after all, one of the most storied and successful programs in collegiate basketball, with a history of excellence. The team was even the preseason favorite to win the national title. So when Duke’s Austin Rivers hit a game-winning 3-pointer to pull the Blue Devils back from a late double-digit deficit in the Dean Dome Feb. 8, the blood flowing through the home locker room began to boil.
It showed. Immediately following that humbling loss, the Tar Heels began to perform with a renewed vigor, rampaging through their remaining regular-season schedule. North Carolina won its final seven regular-season games—five by double-digit margins. The Tar Heels’most recent loss to No. 17 Florida State in the ACC tournament was certainly disappointing, but could be explained by their lack of junior forward John Henson, a significant offensive contributor who recently garnered ACC defensive player of the year and All-ACC first team honors. Henson is currently listed as “day-to-day” for the NCAA tournament with a wrist injury.
Senior forward Tyler Zeller—who bore the brunt of the humiliation following that not-easily-forgettable loss to Duke—has been particularly dominant during this stretch, averaging 18.7 points and eight rebounds.
To be certain, it is dangerous to give extra motivation to a team that already boasts so many threats. With five prospective NBA draftees, including three potential lottery picks, the Tar Heels are perhaps the closest to resembling an NBA squad in the bracket. They certainly play to the potential of one, too, ranking among the top five in points, rebounds and assists per game in Division I.
Joining Zeller and Henson as North Carolina’s primary offensive weapons is sophomore standout Harrison Barnes. He has been North Carolina’s most prolific scorer with 17.4 points per game, as well as the most accurate Tar Heel from 3-point range, capitalizing on 37.7 percent of his attempts. However, Barnes is perhaps most dangerous for his impressive consistency no matter the opponent—he has only scored less than 14 points six times this season. His reliability will certainly become a big advantage during the latter rounds of the tournament, when the stakes become much higher and the opponents more difficult.
North Carolina received the No. 1 seed in the weak Midwest Region, where there seems to be only one serious challenger to ruin its Final Four plans—No. 2 Kansas and star forward Thomas Robinson. The remaining talent in the region pales in comparison to the Tar Heels’, which gives the North Carolina faithful confidence that they will see their team in New Orleans.