North Carolina woke up on Friday. After sleepwalking through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and barely surviving an upset bid from Arkansas thanks in part to some questionable officiating, the Tar Heels showed why they’re a no. 1 seed against Butler. They hit the Bulldogs with haymakers in the first few minutes and never let up, winning 92–80 in a game in which the margin never got closer than 10 points in the second half. UNC likely doesn’t have any future NBA stars on its roster, but it’s as talented as any team in the field, and has all the pieces necessary to win a third national championship under head coach Roy Williams.
Williams hasn’t been able to keep up with guys like Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari on the recruiting trail, as the Tar Heels haven’t produced a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright back in 2006–07. However, that trend might be a blessing in disguise, as Williams has had the luxury of building veteran teams stocked with four- and five-star recruits who stay in school for three to four years. UNC started five former McDonald’s All Americans in the Sweet 16 — Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks — and all are upperclassmen.
The key to the team is Berry, Carolina’s junior point guard, who looked like a shell of himself last weekend after rolling his ankle in a 103–64 win over Texas Southern. He went 2-for-13 from the field and had only three assists against Arkansas, and UNC scored 72 points on 38.1 percent shooting. With their point guard in better form Friday, the Tar Heels scored 52 points in the first half against Butler. When Berry is pushing the pace, getting into the lane, and knocking down open 3s, this squad becomes almost impossible to guard. Butler coach Chris Holtmann packed the paint on defense in an attempt to slow the UNC big men, giving Berry a lot of open shots on the perimeter. He finished with 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting. You have to pick your poison against Carolina, and on Friday, Berry delivered the fatal blow.
The Tar Heels lost Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from the team that came one basket away from cutting down the nets in Houston last season, but they returned almost everyone else. Junior swingman Justin Jackson has picked up most of the slack for those departed stars, winning ACC Player of the Year honors after averaging 18.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game on 44.6 percent shooting. He’s a deadly interior scorer who boasts a wide assortment of floaters and who added a 3-point shot to his arsenal this season. He did a little bit of everything against Butler, racking up 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists on 9-of-18 shooting.
As you would expect from a veteran team that won 25 games, including beating defending national champ Villanova twice, Butler never completely gave in. It just didn’t have the players to keep up with UNC, especially up front. The Tar Heels dominated the boards (38 rebounds to 26), and they had the luxury of bringing a 6-foot-10 former McDonald’s All American (Tony Bradley) off the bench, although their best frontcourt weapon on Friday was junior forward Luke Maye, who had a career-high 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds. Maye averages 5.1 points per game; if he was knocking down shots, it simply wasn’t going to be Butler’s night.
With the win, UNC advances to the Elite Eight, where it will take part in a blue-blood showdown against either UCLA or Kentucky. Carolina narrowly lost to Kentucky in a thrilling 103–100 shootout back in December, and a game against a faster-paced UCLA team would promise to be just as exciting. Either way, the Heels will need huge performances from Jackson (who will have a size advantage on the perimeter, regardless of the opponent, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) and Berry (who will go up against either De’Aaron Fox or Lonzo Ball). While Berry doesn’t have nearly the NBA upside of those two highly touted freshmen, he is older and more experienced, and both can provide a significant advantage in the pressure cooker of March.
UNC entered the tourney with unfinished business, and this time it has the players to finish the job. Sunday can’t get here soon enough.