For the third time in as many seasons, North Carolina will take part in the Sweet 16. This time around, however, the win that got UNC there was more bittersweet than anything else.
UNC’s matchup against Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament tested Roy Williams’ team in a few ways. It forced Kennedy Meeks to step up with a double-double, given that his fellow starters struggled from the field, shooting a combined 10-of-38. It forced the Heels to make a late comeback, and it put the pressure on Isaiah Hicks to hit clutch free throws in the final minutes.
While Carolina showed it could grind out a tough 72-65 win against a Razorback team known for wearing out its opponents in the second half, it advances to the second weekend with plenty of question marks. Turnovers, in particular, will be one issue the Tar Heels must address if they are to reach their championship goals.
UNC had trouble taking care of the ball throughout the game. Williams’ squad squandered an early 30-13 lead, in part because of poor shooting but also because of turnovers.
Hicks, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson were responsible for 10 of the Tar Heels’ 17 turnovers. That, combined with 38.1-percent shooting for the team, almost sent No. 1-seeded UNC back to Chapel Hill to stay after just two tournament games.
It’s not the first time sloppy play has marred a North Carolina performance this season. The team logged 10 turnovers in a March 10 loss to Duke, 14 in a Feb. 27 setback at Virginia, 14 in a one-sided defeat at Miami on Jan. 28, 20 in a Dec. 31 upset at Georgia Tech, and 12 in a nine-point loss at Indiana on Nov. 30.
Whether complacency set in on Sunday or it just happened to be an off night, the Tar Heels won’t have the same margin for error moving forward. A feisty Butler team that sits at No. 43 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings awaits in the regional semifinal round. If UNC survives that bout? Next up would be the winner of Kentucky-UCLA — two of the top teams remaining in the Big Dance.
Getting past the Bulldogs is far from a given for North Carolina. While the Heels are 29-7 on the season, they’re 5-4 against teams ranked ahead of Butler in defensive efficiency. Simply put, avoiding turnovers could be the difference.
Fortunately for UNC, Joel Berry has four days to rest his ankle, and the team’s veteran lineup has time to right the wrongs before Friday’s matchup. Berry and Co. also don’t have to look back far to remember their last meeting with Butler — a surprise 74-66 win by the Bulldogs in the Bahamas two seasons ago.
North Carolina remains one of the front-runners to claim college basketball’s crown, and it has to like its chances even more with Villanova, Duke and Louisville out of the hunt. But with another performance like they had on Sunday, the Tar Heels could become one of the next powers to make a premature exit.