Winning six games in the tournament is extremely difficult but UNC comes in with Tyler Hansbrough leading the team and a HOF coach in Roy Williams on the sideline. The question is who else needs to step up to make it all work.
1. Ty Lawson’s Health
There was a point over the weekend, I think during the Virginia Tech game, that I was not sure Lawson would ever make it back to 100% this season. And he still might not but he looked a lot closer to it on Sunday. Now UNC has the cupcake in Mount St. Mary’s on Friday, Lawson is afforded a few days of rest and another live game to make progress towards normal. If UNC is to win the national title, it is likely they will have to knock off a team or two with top flight PGs and that is the primary reason why Lawson has to be in top form. UNC also could use another weapon on offense. Earlier when we all discussed the offense with Quentin Thomas running the show and how much better Hansbrough was, I think some of that discussion omitted the fact that Lawson is a another scoring option where QT is not. I think you are always better off having one more player who the defense has to worry about as demonstrated by Wayne Ellington’s game winner against Clemson made possible by Lawson drawing the defense. Lawson at top form is a must both on offense and defense.
2. Paging Deon Thompson
I think it is easy to forget that Thompson may not be completely healthy which might serve to explain the level of his play. I reached a point on Sunday where I preferred for Thompson pass the ball after he rebounded it rather than shooting since he seemed wholly incapable of making a shot of any kind. This is perhaps my biggest issue with Thompson right now is he is not presently hitting shots that he should really make given the proximity to the goal. What really frustrates(him more than anyone else I am sure) is that he was playing much better and he had the knee problem which slowed him down. Needless to say, UNC could use another low post threat and Thompson has more mobility and better offensive moves than Alex Stepheson does. Having him to keep interior defenses honest would benefit Hansbrough and the entire UNC offense given who productive Hansbrough has been. If Thompson can hit his share of shots while mixing in some toughness and energy on the boards, UNC is a much better team.
3. Ellington and Green
This is the simplest of all of the keys. When Wayne Ellington and Danny Green play huge games, UNC wins. If they do not then UNC is in major trouble. In the NCAA Tournament I expect this to be magnified somewhat. There is a good chance UNC will run into teams that will test Hansbrough and limit his looks. When that happens it will be on other players to step up and that generally means Ellington and Green. Of course the first Duke game proved that even if Hansbrough scores 26, UNC still needs this duo to perform. Ellington has evolved into a scorer to go along with his deadly jumpshot. This kind of versatile offensive game makes him difficult to guard. Green can play all over, run the court and hit threes. Both of them are key to creating offense on the perimeter to keep opposing defenses honest. It also should be pointed out that there is one common flaw among several high seeded UNC teams that failed to win the title and that was the MIA status of key perimeter shooters during huge games. Whether it was Michael Jordan in foul trouble in 1984 or Jeff Lebo going 0 for 5 from three point range in the 1987 East Regional Final down to the atrocious performance of Shammond Williams in back-to-back Final Fours. The shooters have to show up as Donald Williams did in 1993 and Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams did in 2005. If Ellington/Green can score consistently in every game, UNC will be in for the long haul
At one point this season UNC was ranked by Pomeroy as the 40th best defense in the country. As it stands now, UNC is ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. In this respect UNC has significantly improved on the defensive end. The quesiton is can that step it up another level as Roy asserts the 2005 team did once the NCAA Tournament started. I think so and it will be imperative since no one knows how the offense will respond on any given night. The Heels have shown they can play quality defense. They did so at Duke and I maintain that ACC Championship was a good defensive effort. It is more of a constant than the offense and hopefully each player will take ownership of the defense making it championship caliber.
Intangibles usually covers all those things we really cannot quantify like toughness, heart and intensity. However another part of intangibles is the way the ball bounces, the shot that bounces out from halfway down the cylinder or the loose ball that falls just off your hands. Things like officiating also enter into the picture whether it be the style in which a crew calls the game or bad calls at the wrong time. All of these things enter into the picture and even if the four keys above are executed as well as they can be it still might come down to one or two intangibles. Last season UNC did most everything right against Georgetown until the final six minutes when they allowed the Hoyas to come back and tie the game. And with all of that happening, Wayne Ellington was a scant inch or two from having his game winning three drop through. The same has been true this season except UNC is winning those games instead of losing them. This version of the Tar Heels has won many games that hinged on a play or two going differently whereas last season those games did not break in favor of UNC. When you are talking about six games the number of shots and possessions has been reduced to a fairly manageable number. Somewhere in that group of plays one or two could be a deciding factor between winning a national title and going home for the summer.
And that is what makes it the most maddening and exciting sporting event in the country.