CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The defending national champions, winners of 11 of their last 12 NCAA Tournament games, are not receiving much love from March Madness prognosticators in the days ahead of their repeat bid.
Never mind that Joel Berry, the 2017 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, earned 2018 first-team All-ACC honors in a guard-driven game. Or that Luke Maye, the 2017 South Regional Most Outstanding Player, is a finalist for the Wooden Award in addition to joining his teammate on the All-ACC first team. Or that Roy Williams is a postseason magician, winning 76 percent of his NCAA Tournament games to go along with nine Final Four appearances. Or that UNC has played 22 Quadrant 1 games this season, five more than the next closest team nationally (Texas).
Even so, this Tar Heel team’s deficiencies – namely a lack of experienced size and inconsistent defensive effort – have overshadowed their wealth of experience in a NCAA Tournament field stocked with teams lacking in some way or another.
“I like it that way,” said senior wing Theo Pinson, who made pivotal plays in the final seconds of UNC’s Elite Eight and Final Four wins last season. “Let us stay under the radar. People don’t want us to win, anyway. That’s alright. We’re going to take that as extra motivation, as if we don’t have any motivation as is.”
ESPN’s 27 basketball analysts offered their picks on Tuesday morning and 18 chose teams seeded lower than No. 2 UNC to win the West Region. At least six analysts picked No. 3 Michigan to upset the Tar Heels in the Sweet Sixteen, which is more than those who picked Williams’s squad to make a third-straight Final Four appearance.
“I just hate when people count us out because we don’t have the so-called NBA talent on our team,” Berry told the Associated Press on Monday. “And that irks me so much because it’s not about having NBA talent. It’s about having guys who are coming together to compete to get one goal: and that’s to win a national championship. And if you have that, that takes care of everything else.”
In 2009, the Tar Heels used the debacle of their 2008 Final Four loss to Kansas as motivation. Last season, it was Kris Jenkins’s buzzer-beating three-pointer to win the 2016 national championship. The redemption tour is over, leaving fans and media standing outside of the UNC locker room to wonder if the motivation this March is strong enough to fuel yet another deep run.
While Williams acknowledged last season’s motivational force on Tuesday, he also refused to suggest such fire was a necessity entering the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, it worked out, so I’d say yes, but I don’t know that we had any definite motivation the year before and we made it to 4.6 seconds,” the 15th-year UNC head coach said. “Once you get into the tournament is really when I think things start clicking for you and you start getting more focused and more focused as each game goes along.”
The Hall of Fame coach said there was no single motivation for his 2005 title team until it reached the national championship game, which media labeled as a “talent vs. team” event. His Tar Heels took that personally and capitalized on the bulletin board material.
“Sometimes they have a single motivating factor that really helps them, sometimes they pick up one themselves once the tournament starts and sometimes you just frickin’ go out and play,” Williams said.
Motivation is also self-serving. UNC is the only team to have played in the past two national championship games. The Tar Heels not only understand what it takes to reach the finals, but they also understand the enjoyment that comes with such a journey, which is intoxicating.
“We know how good it feels and we want to experience that again,” junior wing Kenny Williams said. “We want to put another one up. We’re not satisfied with just winning it last year and letting whatever happens happen this year. We’re trying to go back and win.”