The ball bounced North Carolina’s way this time around. A year after losing the national title on one of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history, the Tar Heels lived a charmed life during the Big Dance, beating the Bulldogs 71–65 and becoming national champions despite winning only two of their six games by double digits. They sneaked out wins in the final seconds against Kentucky and Oregon, and benefited from the refs almost fouling out Gonzaga’s entire front line on Monday. Joel Berry II, the MOP of the Final Four, struggled with ankle injuries throughout the tournament, while Justin Jackson, their best player, shot 6-of-19 from the field in the championship game. The one constant was their stifling perimeter defense, which kept the Tar Heels in every game and allowed them to pull out wins late. Great defensive teams make their own luck, and UNC was just too long and too fast on the perimeter for any team in this year’s field to handle.
North Carolina returned almost its entire team from last season, which is almost unheard of for a blue-blood program in the one-and-done era. Roy Williams has turned his inability to lure the best recruits to Chapel Hill into a virtue, building a team full of upperclassmen who are more experienced and physically mature than their opponents. The tip of the spear of the UNC defense was formed by their two junior wings, Theo Pinson and Jackson, and the duo made life miserable for the guys they were guarding all tournament long. Pinson, at 6-foot-6 and 211 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and Jackson, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, towered over their opponents, who weren’t used to getting off shots over such long and active defenders. Almost all of these guys were having great tournaments before they ran into UNC:
Williams-Goss had the game of his life in the national semifinal against South Carolina, with 23 points, six assists, and five rebounds on 9-of-16 shooting. The only time he was able to get anything going against North Carolina was when Williams decided to play his two 6-foot point guards, Berry and Nate Britt, together in the first half, and neither had the length to keep Williams-Goss out of the paint and bother his shot. When either Jackson or Pinson was on Gonzaga’s lead guard, though, it was a different story. They smothered Williams-Goss as soon as he crossed half court, choking off Gonzaga’s offense, which scored only 65 points on 33.9 percent shooting, and holding it to its worst offensive game of the season. This sequence in the second half, with Jackson blocking his shot and Pinson forcing him into an airball, summed up the night for Williams-Goss:
Jackson’s defensive versatility was one of the keys to UNC’s run to the national title. In the Elite Eight, he was matched up against Malik Monk, the electric scoring guard and future NBA lottery pick who dropped 47 points on the Tar Heels in their regular-season game in December. He scored only 12 in the rematch, with six of those points coming on miracle shots in the second half. Against Oregon, Jackson played as a small-ball power forward, matching up against Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound combo forward who was a mismatch nightmare for the traditional big men he faced most of the season. Brooks had no answer for a defender like Jackson, who was taller, longer, and faster than him.
Pinson was even better defensively in March, shutting down two of the biggest stars of the tournament in consecutive games. De’Aaron Fox put together an all-time great tournament performance in the Sweet 16, scoring 39 points and outclassing Lonzo Ball on both ends of the floor in a matchup of future lottery picks, but Fox wasn’t able to recapture the magic against Pinson. Carolina’s über-athletic defender combined Ball’s size with Fox’s athleticism, hounding the Kentucky star all over the floor and never letting him get comfortable on offense. Tyler Dorsey, meanwhile, was being hailed as “Mr. March” for his incredible scoring outburst through Oregon’s first four games. Dorsey was bound to start regressing to the mean at some point, and Pinson’s ability to get right into him on defense without giving him driving lanes to the basket accelerated the process.
There just aren’t many perimeter players at the college level with Jackson’s and Pinson’s combination of length and athleticism. Most guys with their physical tools leave for the NBA as soon as possible, something that wasn’t an option for either of UNC’s wings due to their abysmal outside shooting as sophomores. Jackson shot 29.2 percent from 3 last season, while Pinson was even worse at 28.6 percent. Now that Jackson has turned himself into a respectable outside shooter, he will almost certainly declare for the NBA draft. Pinson, though, still can’t buy a shot from the perimeter (he shot 23.7 percent from 3 this season), so he will most likely come back for his senior season and try to make his third consecutive Final Four.
Pinson, Jackson, and Berry were all part of the same recruiting class in 2014, and they have had a three-year run as great as any group in North Carolina’s storied history. Jackson is the only surefire NBA player of the bunch, but all three will go down as UNC legends for what they’ve done in March. Experience is the greatest teacher, and they came back from last season’s heartbreak against Villanova as better players. UNC has long been known for its high-flying offense under Williams, but this year’s group was able to win his third national title in a referee-marred half-court slog of a championship game by buckling down and grinding out stop after stop in the second half. It wasn’t pretty, but after what happened last season, the Tar Heels will take it. The ball bounces your way a lot more often when you block it back in your opponent’s face.