The North Carolina Tar Heels, the top seed in the Midwest Region, begin their 2019 NCAA Tournament run Friday night when they face the Iona Gaels. The game will be played in Columbus with the Tar Heels favored by 24 points.
The Gaels were the top team in the MAAC during the regular season, and they held serve in the conference tournament. They took their lumps during the non-conference part of their schedule, which is why they finished 17-15 overall despite closing out the season with 10 consecutive wins.
Of course, the Tar Heels closed out the season just as hot, winning 15 of 16 games before falling to Duke in the ACC Tournament semi-finals. Despite the loss in the conference tournament, North Carolina won a share of the ACC regular-season crown, going 16-2 in the ACC and 27-6 overall.
At their best, the Tar Heels are one of the best offensive teams in the country. Both Cameron Johnson and Colby White averaged over 16 points per game during the regular season to lead the way. Johnson is typically seen as a sharpshooter, a deserved reputation based on making 46.5% of his perimeter shots. But late in the season, Johnson was getting most of his points inside the arc. At 6’9’’, Johnson is able to post up smaller players and also has the skills to occasionally create his own shot.
White has also come on strong late in the season. The freshman has grown in leaps and bounds since the start of the season. To be fair, his outside shooting can be incredibly streaky, as some games, he’s ice cold from the perimeter. However, that’s not the only part of his game where he makes an impact. He can also get to the basket and set up his teammates. White is typically the litmus test for North Carolina; when he has a good game, the Tar Heels are usually rolling.
Not Afraid of the Moment
One thing that Iona has going for them is that this is their fourth straight season playing in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve not won a game in the previous three seasons and have seen their seed drop one level each year, ultimately being given a 16 seed this year. However, unlike most 16 seeds, the Gaels won’t be unfamiliar with playing in the tournament or afraid of the stage, even if they’re out-matched on paper.
Look for that experience to be on display, as the Gaels are loaded with juniors and seniors who have been part of tournament teams in previous years. They also have a fair amount of talent, with four players averaging double figures. The caveat, of course, is that Iona will have to go deep into their bench to find the kind of size that can match up against UNC. But the Gaels have some bigger guards and a handful of decent shooters on their roster.
Closer Than You Think
Iona is a solid 16 seed that can put some points on the board, especially against a North Carolina team that has had some issues defensively this year. The Gaels won’t be able to keep up with UNC’s tempo for 40 minutes, but they’ll make things a little interesting. Bet on Iona to beat the 24-point spread against North Carolina.