April 22, 2018

North Carolina eyeing to become first repeat champion since Florida in 2006-2007

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has taken the Tar Heels to 14 NCAA Tournaments in 15 years. Austin McFadden/MSA.

CHARLOTTE — It’s been 25 years since a team went to three straight NCAA men’s basketball national title games, back when Duke reeled off four straight appearances from 1990-1993. The Blue Devils won it all in 1991 and 1992, and the only program to repeat since was Florida in 2006 and 2007.

History shows that consecutive championships and title game trips are a rarity, which is why North Carolina is in a unique position ahead of this week’s 2018 NCAA Tournament. On Friday at 3:30 p.m. against 15-seeded Lipscomb at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, the Tar Heels start a postseason quest toward three straight national championship games and back-to-back titles. Unlike the last two, however, UNC (25-10) enters the tournament as a two-seed.

So, given the circumstances, do these Tar Heels feel any pressure to meet lofty standards, or do shoulders feel a little lighter since they’re not a top seed?

“I mean, I don’t feel any pressure,” senior guard Joel Berry II said. “This is our last one. We just want to enjoy it as much as we can.”

North Carolina senior guard Joel Berry II is averaging 17.1 points per game for the Tar Heels this season. Austin McFadden/MSA.

“I agree with what Joel said,” senior Theo Pinson added. “I think the biggest thing is living it up right now, just enjoying the process, enjoying this, all the practice coming up, all that type of stuff. Staying in the moment, I think that’s big for us.”

Roughly 20 minutes after Thursday’s student-athlete press conference ended, North Carolina took the Spectrum Center floor for the first time in their 40-minute open practice. Fans dressed in Carolina-blue splotched the arena and gravitated toward the tunnel, where Berry, Pinson, and company led the Tar Heels out for a final tune-up.

While Lipscomb, Providence and Texas A&M — three teams who practiced before UNC — ran things reasonably strict, North Carolina took more of a lenient, crowd-wowing approach with a team dunk contest, perhaps backing Pinston’s statement “enjoying the process.”

Tar Heels coach Roy Willliams, making his 14th NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years at the university, seemed to enjoy himself under the lighthearted mindset, too.

“Opening statement would be that Tiger Woods just birdied a hole. He’s the sole leader now at 4-under par through 16 holes. That’s all I got,” Williams said to open his Thursday evening presser before letting out a laugh. 

This is how North Carolina spent its first March Madness activity since cutting down the nets in Arizona. Statistically speaking, the Tar Heels have what it takes to make another run. Junior forward Luke Maye (17.2 points, 10.1 rebounds) is a double-double machine and leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Berry (17.1 points), Cameron Johnson (12.7 points), Kenny Williams (11.4) and Pinson (10.3 points, 4.8 assists, 6.4 rebounds) solidify a starting five that averages double-figure scoring.

According to KenPom, the Tar Heels have the fifth-most efficient in the nation and the second highest offensive rebound percentage at 38.4 percent, both ingredients that can fuel another title push. Their defense also ranks 34th nationally — not an elite standing, but good enough to get the job done. 

“We’re a pretty doggone good basketball team. … “We do try to realize that we’ve got a target on our back. And that’s OK. I like that,” Williams said. “I heard [from anaylysts] … nobody picked us to go to the Final Four. … What we try to do is just enjoy the experience. I want our guys to enjoy this today. Then I want them to play their tail off and enjoy the locker room tomorrow. And if we play well enough, perhaps somebody will let us stay around and play again.”

North Carolina junior forward Luke Maye poses with a Tar Heel fan after Thursday’s practice. Austin McFadden/MSA.

UNC is fresh off a 71-63 loss to top-ranked Virginia in the ACC title game on Saturday. And instead of going into the madness at full blast, a setback has perhaps fueled title hopes that much more.

“That adds a little more fire to us,” Pinson said. “We went four days in a row of playing quality teams and had a chance to get a championship we fell short. So, if that doesn’t get everybody motivated I don’t know what will. It’s the NCAA Tournament. We’ve been here before. We’re excited and we want to go out on top.”

About Kyle McFadden 416 Articles
Kyle McFadden is a graduate from Linganore High School's Class of 2014, a sports junkie and general news-hound. He got his start as a sports writer in January 2014 for Linganore's student-run newspaper The Lance, where he wrote 13 articles. McFadden then launched his own blog in October 2014 called The Beltway Dispatch covering collegiate, local high school and professional sports. Formally known as The Beltway Dispatch, McFadden and Evan Engelhard merged respective platforms in June 2015 to make what is now Maryland Sports Access. With baseball, basketball and golf experience, McFadden brings ample knowledge to the helm of MSA. McFadden covers a wide variety of sports in football, baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, lacrosse, soccer and specializes in the collegiate and high school levels. McFadden volunteers his time at Damascus Road Community Church -- serving as a mentor to the youth, basketball coach at the varsity and junior varsity levels, and leads a small group of high school sophomores every Wednesday night. Although he's only been around journalism since January 2014, he's a high school sports reporter for The Baltimore Sun and freelancer for The Frederick News-Post. McFadden's work has also appeared in DMV newspapers The Aegis, The Capital Gazette, The Daily Times (Delmarva Now), The Hometown Observer, Howard County Times, Germantown Pulse and The Towson Times. He's also won two Mike Powell Excellence in Journalism awards and has appeared on The Best of SNO, which showcases top student work of high school and college journalists. McFadden currently studies at Frederick Community College and plans to transfer to the University of Maryland in the fall of 2018 to work on a bachelor's degree in journalism with aspirations to be a national college basketball writer.
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