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2022 NCAA Tournament Preview: #8 North Carolina vs #9 Marquette

The Golden Eagles square off against the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament for the third time in history.

Appalachian State v North Carolina Photo by Peyton Williams/UNC/Getty Images

2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament

First Round

#8 North Carolina Tar Heels (24-9, 15-5 ACC) vs #9 Marquette Golden Eagles (19-12, 11-8 Big East)

Date: Thursday, March 17, 2022
Time: 3:30pm Central
Location: Dickies Arena, Fort Worth, Texas
Line: Marquette +3.5 thanks to our friends at DraftKings

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Justin Lewis, 17.1 ppg
Rebounds: Justin Lewis, 7.9 rpg
Assists: Tyler Kolek, 5.7 apg

North Carolina Stats Leaders

Points: Armando Bacot, 16.5 ppg
Rebounds: Armando Bacot, 12.5 rpg
Assists: Caleb Love, 3.8 apg

KenPom.com Rankings

Marquette: #46
North Carolina: #30
Game Projection: North Carolina has a 56% chance of victory, with a predicted score of 77-75.

How Did We Get Here, Marquette Edition: To a certain extent, Marquette is in the NCAA tournament exclusively because of an 8-1 stretch that the Golden Eagles had in January and the first game of February. That run gave the Golden Eagles their two best wins of the season: a season sweep of Villanova. There aren’t many teams in the country that have a better win on their resume this season than Marquette getting the 57-54 victory at Finneran Pavilion. They also swept Seton Hall in that stretch, shelled Providence by 32, and just barely got squeaked by the Big East regular season champions, 65-63, out at the Dunk in Rhode Island for the only loss in there.

Sure, they have other notable wins: at home over Illinois, Mississippi and West Virginia in the Charleston Classic, at Kansas State. But that nine game run gave the Golden Eagles the wins they needed to get to the NCAA tournament. This is important, because Marquette is only 3-5 since that 8-1 run ended. Sure, losses at Connecticut and at Creighton aren’t exactly problems on your slate, but Marquette completely forgetting to play defense for long stretches at Butler and at DePaul? That was no good, and those were both in the last month of the season.

Still, qualifying for the NCAA tournament at all seemed like a stretch goal in October when Marquette was picked to finish ninth in the Big East and no one knew how the nine new scholarship players on the roster were going to fit in with the three returning guys. Instead, Marquette is in a coinflip of an NCAA tournament game in Shaka Smart’s first season as head coach in Milwaukee and cleanly in the field, more than 10 spots clear of the at-large bid cutline. A pretty good result right now, and a win on Thursday would make it even better.

How Did We Get Here, North Carolina Edition: Much like Marquette, the Tar Heels have a first year head coach this season. Hubert Davis moved one chair to the right to take over as head coach after Roy Williams retired last spring following 18 seasons in charge in Chapel Hill. North Carolina started off Davis’ first season in charge as a top 25 team in the AP poll, but it hasn’t gone even remotely as well as that preseason #19 ranking.

It’s not like North Carolina was bad or anything. They lost two games at the Hall of Fame Tipoff to Purdue and Tennessee, both of whom started the year in front of them in the AP Poll. Not great, but understandable. This knocked them out of the AP top 25, though. They got a win over Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but then lost to Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic. 8-3, but again: Three losses to teams ahead of them in the preseason poll. Nine days later, UNC wasn’t even earning AP votes any more, and then they lost at Notre Dame to drop to 2-1 in the ACC. And then they lost two straight to Miami and Wake Forest — both on the road — to fall to 12-6 overall and 4-3 in the league.

Not great! Things got a little bit better for the Heels after that, though. They won four straight before getting clonked at home by Duke, which stings on multiple levels for UNC. Two more wins were followed by a stinker of a home loss to a going nowhere and actually kind of bad Pitt team. At this point, North Carolina was 18-8 overall, 10-5 in the ACC, and they didn’t have a single Quadrant 1 win to their name. Not great when it comes to your NCAA tournament hopes.

Then, finally, they closed the regular season strong. A road win at Virginia Tech was their first Quadrant 1 win of the season (at the time at least, technically they have an earlier one now because of VaTech’s ascent as ACC tourney champ, you get the idea), and that kicked off a five game winning streak to end the regular season. That was capped with maybe the most notable (I don’t know if we should say biggest or most important here, but notable feels right) win in the UNC/Duke rivalry: The Tar Heels went in to Cameron Indoor Stadium and handed Coach K a loss in his final regular season home game. As a neutral party on the issue: That’s funny.

UNC wrapped up things before the NCAA tournament by beating Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals before falling by 13 to eventual champion Virginia Tech in the semis. Would it have been a hoot to see North Carolina swing another win over Duke? Sure! But alas.

Tempo Free Fun: We should probably start with the three most notable statistical things about North Carolina Basketball this season. I mean, start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, right?

  1. North Carolina hates causing turnovers on defense. Literally the 12th worst team in the country at it according to KenPom.com.
  2. North Carolina loves getting defensive rebounds. Opponents get to just 20.8% of their misses this season, which is the second lowest number in the country behind only Vermont.
  3. North Carolina hates it when you get to the free throw line. KenPom has the Tar Heels at #10 in the country in defensive free throw rate. Not shooting percentage, but the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts.

All three of these things are fantastic news for Marquette. The Golden Eagles don’t have a turnover problem on offense themselves, so the fact that UNC isn’t even going to try to disrupt them is great news. The catch there, of course, is that Creighton is in the general vicinity of North Carolina in that department defensively, and we all just watched MU cough it up to the Bluejays on 21% of possessions in the Big East tournament. So maybe just don’t do that again. Make smart plays with the ball and let good things happen.

The next two items on the list are the strength of UNC’s defense, which is currently ranked #64 in the country by KenPom’s adjusted metric. Yes, UNC’s strength is good news for Marquette. Why? Because it’s very clear that Marquette doesn’t give a crap about offensive rebounds in the first place — #330 in the country — and they’re pretty bad at getting to the free throw line themselves, ranking #278 in that department. MU doesn’t need to get forced into problems on the offensive glass or at getting to the line, they’ll be just fine creating those problems on their own. In short: The thing that makes North Carolina’s defense even passable is something that Marquette’s been plagued with all season, and MU’s still the #62 most efficient offense in the country anyway. Cool, knock yourself out, Tar Heels.

I know it sounds reductive and almost boring to the point of being stupidly obvious, but if Marquette just takes care of the ball and focuses on taking quality shots, things are going to work out for them. Quality shots turn into made buckets. North Carolina is mediocre at best at stopping you from shooting three-pointers, and as a result, teams make a ton of them against the Tar Heels. Given Marquette’s preference for creating a shot by way of the pass — #22 in the country in assist rate, after all — they’re going to get good looks at the rim all game long. If Greg Elliott or Kam Jones catch a heater, or maybe even Justin Lewis or Darryl Morsell? This game could tip in MU’s direction really quickly.

On the other end, Marquette has to be wary of UNC’s shooters. Sure, Armando Bacot is a double-double machine, and the 6’10” junior from Virginia is probably going to make life hell for Kur Kuath and Oso Ighodaro in the paint. Such is life. MU can’t afford to let Brady Manek, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis catch fire from behind the arc. All three are hitting at least 37% of their three-pointers this season, and all three average at least 4.5 attempts per game with Love and Manek both north of six tries a night. The Golden Eagles have generally pretty good at denying shots beyond the line this season, but you can’t cover everyone perfectly all the time, and one guy catching fire can easily turn into open looks for a second or third guy.

This game could easily turn into a track meet, since both teams are amongst the 40 fastest paced teams in the country. Marquette gets there by being lightning quick on offense and making you work for a shot on defense, while North Carolina gets things going in a hurry in both directions. With that in mind, I can’t fully recommend that the Golden Eagles try to run the Tar Heels out of the gym. I bring this up because just once in the past seven games has UNC gotten more than 10 minutes out of two guys off their bench. Well, technically, at least. Ryan McAdoo started on Senior Night and then regular starter Caleb Love took over after two minutes. Other than that, though, it’s been the five starters for Carolina and Puff Johnson coming off the bench, and that is essentially it since the loss to Pitt. The lone real exception in the last seven games was Justin McKoy getting to play 16 minutes against Virginia in the ACC tournament. However, even that might not count as an actual exception as 11 of those minutes were the final 11 minutes of the game after UNC was already up 23.

If there was ever a game to figure out how to get to the line more often and cause foul trouble amongst the opposing roster and thus make them dig into a bench that they don’t want to dig into, this would be the one..... but given the overall trends for both teams as mentioned earlier, that seems unlikely.

Stat Watch #1: Tyler Kolek is five assists away from a tie for the ninth most assists in any Marquette season, and six assists away from a tie for the eighth most assists. If he gets really wild and hands out nine helpers? He’ll jump up to 187 on the year and into a tie with Travis Diener for seventh place all time.

Stat Watch #2: Kur Kuath is currently in a tie for the sixth most blocks in a Marquette season. Amal McCaskill also had 76 swats back in 1995. Kuath obviously needs just one block to break the tie, and he needs three to tie Jim McIlvaine’s 79 from 1993.

Marquette Last 10 Games: 4-6 with losses in five of the last eight games.

North Carolina Last 10 Games: 8-2 with a six game winning streak getting snapped in the ACC semifinals.

All-Time Series: Marquette is 2-4 all time against North Carolina. The series started with a 67-59 Marquette victory on March 28th, 1977 (hey, I know that game), and it was all Tar Heels after that, including a Sweet 16 game in 2011, but the Golden Eagles won the most recent encounter. That one was just last February in a hastily scheduled trip to Chapel Hill, and MU came away with the 83-70 victory.

Follow Along on Twitter

@AnonymousEagle - hey, that’s us!
@MarquetteMBB - The official Marquette team account
@UNC_Basketball - The official North Carolina team account
@BenSteeleMJS - The Journal Sentinel’s beat reporter
@TarHeelBlog - our SB Nation friends that cover North Carolina
@becb_sbn - our SB Nation friends that cover the entire Big East