|Tyler Zeller has emerged as the Tar Heels' best player while leading UNC's late-season surge. (Getty Images)|
It has been a bumpy road for North Carolina since it entered the season as the preseason No. 1, but the Tar Heels still managed to nab a No. 1 seed by winning nine straight games to clinch the ACC regular-season championship, falling short in the conference tournament final to Florida State.
Roy Williams and North Carolina have had more than their fair share of issues, losing by double-digits to UNLV in the nonconference season and then getting throttled by 33 points at Florida State in mid-January. Those hiccups were compounded by a season-ending injury to starting guard Dexter Strickland, the team's best defender, and a collapse against Duke in early February. Suddenly, the Tar Heels dropped off the short list of national championship contenders in the eyes of many.
Down the stretch, North Carolina regained its mojo, beating teams by more than 15 points per game in its next eight. The Tar Heels are starting to look like the team that was something of a consensus preseason No. 1, and they are playing their best basketball heading into the NCAA tournament. North Carolina has all the pieces to win a championship, and the Tar Heels have added motivation after falling one game short of the Final Four last season. They're not a perfect team -- and the season hasn't gone as expected -- but you can't discuss potential champions without mentioning the Tar Heels.
Breaking down North Carolina
Why they'll win it all: North Carolina boasts as much talent as anyone in the country, especially on the offensive end. When the Tar Heels get their transition game going, there are few teams that can keep up. Tyler Zeller and John Henson form a dominant duo on the inside, and Kendall Marshall might be the best passer in the country. Harrison Barnes can be a go-to scorer when he's aggressive and not settling for outside jumpers.
Why they won't: While North Carolina thrives in an up-tempo game, it isn't as effective in a half-court setting. Offensively, the Tar Heels are inconsistent from behind the arc and can get stagnant when shots aren't falling. On the defensive end, North Carolina doesn't force turnovers at a high rate and doesn't have lockdown defenders on the perimeter. Marshall is a liability with his lack of lateral movement. If a team can control tempo, UNC will struggle.
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Player to watch: Henson's health will be key for North Carolina. The 6-foot-11 junior injured his left wrist in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament against Maryland and didn't play the rest of the weekend. If Henson is going to miss any time in the NCAA tournament, or not be 100 percent, North Carolina will take a hit at both ends of the floor. He is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, and he posted 16 double-doubles.
One guy soaring: Zeller might not get as much attention as Henson, Marshall or Barnes, but he has been North Carolina's best player. Zeller is an efficient scorer and is one of the nation's best offensive rebounders. He stepped up his play down the stretch, averaging better than 20 points in his past five games. When North Carolina needs a clutch bucket, it is not afraid to throw the ball inside to Zeller.
One guy slumping: Barnes was expected to be the go-to guy offensively for North Carolina, but that hasn't materialized consistently. Barnes is also not playing his best basketball heading into the NCAA tournament. Before the ACC final, Barnes had shot only 21 of 62 (33.8 percent) from the field and 3 of 19 (15.7 percent) from behind the arc in his past five games. He needs to be more aggressive for UNC to advance deep.
Best off the bench: P.J. Hairston is the team's leading bench scorer, but James Michael McAdoo will play a more important role in the NCAA tournament -- especially if Henson is limited or has to miss time. McAdoo has shown flashes of his potential, and he brings athleticism and energy to the table. When Henson went down in the ACC quarterfinals, McAdoo contributed 14 points and eight rebounds. When given minutes, he can produce.
Notable stat: Since North Carolina lost to Florida State by 33 back in January, one stat has overshadowed all others: No team in the past 20 years has won a championship after losing by more than 26 points in a game. It brings up the questions of the Tar Heels' mental toughness and killer instinct. Does North Carolina have the intestinal fortitude to win six games under intense pressure?
Final thought: The way Kendall Marshall is playing (15 points, 10.7 assists in three games leading up to ACC final), North Carolina can beat anyone. The Tar Heels haven't been as dominant as the preseason expectations, when they were a near-consensus No. 1. They have plenty of offensive talent and dominant players at multiple positions and are hitting their stride at the right time.