North Carolina Tar Heels 23-9, 13-5
The Tar Heels have experienced some real highs and lows this season, from knocking off the defending national champions Louisville in the opening month of the season to losing to Texas, Wake Forest and Miami. A loss to Virginia on January 20 marked their fourth in five games and put them at 1-4 in ACC play, but they turned things around completely after that, rattling off 12 straight wins to help secure their 45th appearance in the Big Dance. They backed their way in, though, dropping two straight at the close to Duke and Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels played the 17th most difficult schedule in the country and went 11-5 against the RPI top 50. Their strength is in the interior; between James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks they have the ability to match up with any big men in the country. However, their guard play is not as formidable after the mid-season dismissal of P.J. Hairston, who now plays in the NBA’s Development League. Marcus Paige is a star in the backcourt, leading the team in points (17.1) and assists (4.5), but they lack shooting threats outside of him and Leslie McDonald, evident by their 4.2 makes from distance a game (ranked 340th nationally). The Tar Heels are also particularly woeful from the free throw line, where they get with great regularity, but only connect at a 62 percent rate (also ranked 340th nationally). Few teams in the country can handle them up front, but if the Tar Heels guard play doesn’t rise to the occasion, or their big men get into foul trouble, they’re going to be in serious danger of an early exit.
Providence Friars 23-11, 10-8
One week prior to their Big East tournament championship showdown the Friars were beat soundly by the Creighton Blue Jays 88-73. Had they fell to the Blue Jays again, they would have been firmly on the bubble and at the mercy of the selection committee. However, as Friars head coach Ed Cooley masterfully put it: They busted the bubble. Behind 23 points from Bryce Cotton and a great defensive effort against one of the top offenses in the country, they upset Creighton 65-58 to secure their spot in Big Dance. Their 16th appearance all-time ends a nine-year tournament drought. They played the 45th most difficult schedule, going 5-4 against the RPI top 50 with quality wins against Virginia, Saint Louis and of course Creighton. This will be the first time Cooley is coaching in the NCAA Tournament. He’ll rely heavily on senior guard Bryce Cotton, who will finally get the opportunity to play on the game’s biggest stage. Cotton led the nation in minutes played at 39.9 per game and 2,407 total. He’s cemented himself as one of the all-time great Friars this year, scoring 21.4 a game while grabbing 3.5 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists. He’s capable of leading this team to tournament success, especially with a solid supporting cast in LaDontae Henton, Kadeem Batts, Josh Fortune and Tyler Harris. A win would be their first since 1997, when God Shammgod helped lead them to the Elite Eight. The Friars lack depth and certainly miss Kris Dunn, whose missed all but four games due to injury. Their best reserve is sophomore seven footer Carson Desrosiers who averages 2.4 blocks in 19.6 minutes a game. Any kind of serious foul trouble will likely lead to an early exit for the Friars.
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