Preview: How UNC’s No. 8 men’s hoops can beat UCLA on Friday and win the Elite Eight trip

Going into the NCAA Tournament, you could be forgiven for assuming the North Carolina men’s basketball team wouldn’t be there. But here they are: gearing up for a trip to Philadelphia, two wins away from earning the program its first Final Four spot since 2017.

After UNC held off a return of No. 1 seed Baylor on Saturday and No. 2 seed Kentucky fell to St. Peter’s in the first round, the Tar Heels have a legitimate chance to represent the region. from the East in the Final Four.

But, as last weekend’s results showed, nothing is certain in March.

The first step is a Friday fight with fellow blue-blooded and No. 4 seed UCLA — a team UNC was scheduled to face in December before the game was called off due to COVID-19 protocols in the Bruins program.

Here are three factors the Tar Heels need to defeat UCLA and earn a trip to the Elite Eight.

The guards are mobilizing

In a first-round win over Marquette, it was second Caleb Love – who finished with 23 points and knocked it down 6-13 from beyond the arc. Against Baylor, it was fellow sophomore RJ Davis – who played all 45 minutes of the contest, knocked down 30 points and led the Tar Heels offense after Love fouled.

For North Carolina to control the game on Friday, one of those two will have to step up. The production of the great junior Armando Bacot – if he is not at fault – was given this year. The difference between North Carolina’s best and worst results this season comes in its guard play.

Both Love and Davis improved their efficiency towards the end of the season. If the tournament is to go ahead, one of them has to be an X factor in Philadelphia.

Avoid Foul Trouble

North Carolina doesn’t have much depth and certainly doesn’t have the bench squad they had last year. The rotation has hovered around seven players for most of the year – Davis, Love, Bacot, senior Leaky Black and graduate Brady Manek, with Puff Johnson and Dontrez Styles coming off the bench. But in practice, the starting five take up the vast majority of minutes.

For the first 30 minutes against Baylor, North Carolina was clearly the better team – even extending their lead to a game-high 25 points. But after Manek was sent off for a flagrant 2 foul and Love was fouled, the wheels fell off and a win looked unlikely before extra time.

The Tar Heels can’t expect another miracle to happen against the Bruins, who are ranked in the top 15 in adjusted offense and defense in the KenPom rankings. North Carolina’s short bench was made evident against the Bears, and the Tar Heels will need to avoid fouls to continue their run.

Compete against the most experienced

After making their own long run in the Final Four last year, the Bruins have as much NCAA Tournament experience as any Sweet 16 team. UCLA has only two true first-years on its roster. The Bruins have been here before. UNC does not.

Black is the only player from the North Carolina roster to play in Carolina Blue’s Sweet 16. Despite that, the Tar Heels had plenty of close competition heading into Friday — including the aforementioned loss to Baylor and a regular-season win over Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

UNC has already passed tough tests this season and shown that, at its best, the team is capable of competing on the biggest stages in college basketball.

In order to beat the Bruins and get closer to the biggest stage the sport has to offer, the Tar Heels will have to prove, once again, that they can step up and play their best game when the lights are out. the brightest. .

@zachycrain

@dthsports | [email protected]

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