NEWARK -- Potentially the most repeated fallacy in sports is what I would call the "fallacy of the most recent." When the average fan or commentator is trying to predict what will happen in the next game, they usually place far too much emphasis on what has happened in the previous game.
This occurs to an even greater degree in the NCAA tournament, where the average fan or non-expert commentator is seeing most of these teams for just the second or third time all season. Whatever happened last is thus most telling to them, a fact that allows the smart gamblers in Las Vegas to exploit skewed lines and win in the end.
This fallacy plays out every year, and based on their performance Friday night, expect an epic number of fans to jump on the North Carolina bandwagon this week. Because the reality is that in Friday night's 81-63 Tar Heels victory over Marquette, North Carolina put together the best 15-minute run that any team has executed all season in college basketball. With 12:43 remaining in the first half, Marquette took the lead, 10-8, and looked to be in position to battle North Carolina to the wire and try to win with its physical, hard-nosed style of basketball.
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And then came Tar Heel domination. Over the next 15 minutes of game action, North Carolina went on a 36-5 run that showcased a combination of athleticism and explosiveness that simply cannot be matched by any team in America. The Heels utilized their unequaled three-man front line that is not only long and talented, but has improved immensely during the course of the season.
The star on Friday was Tyler Zeller, whose 27 points and 12 rebounds were as smooth as they were effective. Zeller runs the floor as well as any big man in the country and his ability to get out on the break and beat defenses to the other end accounts for at least two to three baskets a game.
He has great low-post moves, but most importantly, he allows the game to be played at the speed he prefers. On Friday night, Zeller seemed to lull his opponents to sleep, not because he is slow, but because his methodical play sizes up the defender as he determines the move he wants to make. He isn't an explosive leaper, nor is he a great defender, but on the offensive end of the court, Zeller can only be contained by a handful of players in college basketball.
Then there is Harrison Barnes, who had 20 points and nine rebounds against Marquette, and has slowly become the player everyone expected him to be initially. He still spends a bit too much time on the perimeter for a player with his penetrating ability, but with games like the one on Friday, who can blame him? Barnes made three 3-pointers and was able to extend the defense, while also becoming a terrifying mismatch for Marquette defenders. His length suggests a big man must be put on him, but with two other top quality big men in the Heels' starting lineup, finding any matchup becomes nearly impossible.
Following these two stars is the point guard who changed it all, Kendall Marshall, a playmaker that makes everyone around him better. Marshall dramatically altered North Carolina's fate by simply realizing that the Heels are most effective when the best players get the ball in spots where they can succeed. The third big man, John Henson, can frustrate even the most avid fan with his odd decisions, but the reality of a 6-foot-10 baller with a 7-foot wingspan attacking the rim means that North Carolina is always on the verge of an offensive rebound, as Henson showcased with his 14-point, 12-rebound performance. Throw in the consistent solid play of Dexter Strickland to round out the starting five, and you have the recipe for a dominant team.
And dominant is exactly how North Carolina looked on Friday night. For 15 minutes, it crushed the souls of Marquette and made Charles Barkley, with his anti-Big East predictions, look like even more of a sage. So now going into the East Regional final on Friday, we should expect to see the casual college basketball observer give the Heels lots of love. Pundits will look past the team that easily could have fallen in the second round to Washington, and will only remember the unprecedented performance we saw here on Friday night.
And maybe they will be right. The North Carolina that played those 15 minutes at the end of the first half and beginning of the second in Newark will not be beaten in this tournament. There is no team in college basketball that can compete with the Tar Heels' size or dominating athleticism. But just as Marquette's win over a Syracuse team that it had beaten before, and had scouted very well, led to the line on Friday's game with North Carolina being an absurdly low five points, many will discount all other information about the Tar Heels except what they saw Friday night.
Don't make the same mistake. North Carolina can most certainly beat Kentucky in the East Regional final on Sunday, but it won't do so playing like it did Friday. What happened Friday isn't the norm, and the greatness we saw in Newark for 15 glorious game minutes was thrilling to watch. But as the totality of North Carolina's work suggests, it is unlikely to be repeated.