As part of its preview of the Final Four, SI.com is taking a look at each of the teams remaining in the NCAA tournament. Adjusted offense and defense statistics—which measure the number of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions—are from kenpom.com and the rankings are relative to the other teams still alive. All other advanced stats are also from kenpom.com (unless noted otherwise) and are through April 1.
Adjusted offensive/defensive efficiency: 123.1 (2nd)/95.3 (4th)
Path to the Final Four: No. 1 seed in East Regional. Beat No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast 83-67; beat No. 9 Providence 85-66; beat No. 5 Indiana 101-86; beat No. 6 Notre Dame 88-74.
Impact player: Brice Johnson, senior, forward. Tournament stats: 21.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 3.5 blocks, 63.0 FG%, 86.7 FT%
The Case For: The Tar Heels are the only No. 1 seed left in the NCAA tournament. That's partly due to an advantageous path to Houston in which their opponents' average seed was 9.0 (compared to 6.5 for Villanova, 7.0 for Oklahoma and 8.5 for Syracuse) and partly due to the fact that they have played outstanding basketball. In last weekend's East Regional in Philadelphia, North Carolina blitzed Indiana from the jump in the Sweet 16, never trailing while going over 100 points. In the Elite Eight, the Tar Heels answered a 12-0 Notre Dame run that gave the Irish a 52-51 lead midway through the second half with a 12-0 run of their own, eventually winning comfortably. In fact, North Carolina's ability to go to another level has enabled it to pull away from all four of its tournament opponents and never be seriously challenged en route to an average margin of victory of 16 points per game. Teams have thus far been able to hang with the Tar Heels for 20, even 30 minutes. None have yet shown they can play with UNC for the full 40.
While All-America Brice Johnson has been consistently spectacular all season, and sophomore point guard Joel Berry (16 assists, four turnovers) has been ideal at the point guard spot in March, it is the reemergence of senior guard Marcus Paige that could make the difference in Carolina's quest for its sixth NCAA tournament championship. After suffering through a mystifying shooting slump during the regular season, Paige appears to have finally rediscovered his outside shooting, making 13-of-27 from three-point range in the NCAA tournament. In fact, UNC as a team is now shooting 38.2% from deep in the NCAAs, a huge jump over the 31.2% it made coming into the tournament. Having achieved the inside-outside balance Roy Williams has been seeking all year (56.2% on two-point shots, +9.5 rebounding margin) and combining it with excellent ballhandling (9.3 turnovers per game in the tournament) and free-throw shooting (81.4%) makes it unlikely a team will be able to catch the Tar Heels if they build another comfortable lead.
The Case Against: Start with the competition. Yes, North Carolina has beaten Syracuse twice this season but both games were close throughout. Plus, Orange coach Jim Boeheim has already beaten a Roy Williams-coached team twice in the NCAA tournament, having eliminated Williams's Kansas teams in the 1996 Elite Eight and the 2003 national title game. And if they get to the finals, the Heels will find the caliber of opponent in either Oklahoma or Villanova that is their equal on both ends of the court. While every team left in the tournament is strong defensively, the Sooners and Wildcats are the two best, according to the defensive metrics at kenpom.com, so they may be able to choke off UNC's offense the same way they already did to the No. 1 seeds each had to beat to make it to Houston. Oklahoma held high-flying Oregon to 38.9% from the field to win the West Regional, while Villanova limited Kansas to 6-of-22 shooting from outside to win the South.
Then there is Paige. His reemergence has been perfectly timed for the Tar Heels, but four games is hardly enough to overcome the two-month sample size of struggles that preceded it. If he regresses to his midseason form, Carolina will be much more beatable.
SI Prediction: Beat Midwest Regional champion Syracuse in Final Four; beat South Regional champion Villanova in national title game.