North Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites to win it all, and the Tar Heels, as expected, are headed to the Final Four in Houston.
But if you had told Matt Doherty in the preseason that North Carolina would make the Final Four and be the favorites to cut down the nets, he might not have believed you.
“Actually, my expectations weren’t very high,” the former North Carolina head coach and current NBA scout said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I thought they were a little soft. I was concerned that the interior toughness wasn’t there, but I think that team really grew and shows a lot of toughness. I think Brice Johnson has really stepped up his toughness this year and the backcourt has been terrific. And now with (Marcus) Paige kind of getting back to his old form, they’re playing the highest level they’ve played in a long time. So if one guy doesn’t have a good game, there’s certainly some (other) guys that can easily step up and contribute with 15 to 20 points.”
No. 1 North Carolina plays No. 10 Syracuse this Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET. The Tar Heels beat the Orange twice this season and have won each of their four tournament games by 14+ points.
Still, Doherty doesn’t think North Carolina is a lock to advance.
“I think they deserve be the favorite, but there’s a reason you play the game,” he said. “Foul trouble, all of a sudden team goes zone and you get tight from the outside – when you’re the favorite in the NCAA Tournament where it’s one-and-done, the emotions can really play significant role in these games. If it’s a best-of-seven series, I definitely would go with Carolina – and I’m going to go with them anyway. But with one game and you’re out, a lot of funny things can happen.”
Doherty, a scout for the Pacers, also discussed the ways in which the NBA game has changed in recent years. The game has become less about hand-checking and brute force and more about finesse and skill.
“I think (the changes) are good for the game. I think the game is exciting,” Doherty said. “It brings back a guy like Steph Curry. When I was growing up, I wanted to be 6-7. I felt like I had to be 6-7. I wanted to be like Rick Barry, I wanted to be kind of like Larry Bird, and I felt you had to be a certain size. And when you get a guy like Steph Curry, I think a lot of people can relate. (They think), ‘He’s not that big, he’s not that strong. He’s a good athlete, not a freak athlete. With hard work, I could become a good player.’ I think that is good for the game. I think it’s exciting. The three-point line, it’s like the home run in baseball. I think it’s an exciting play. Look at the people that show up to watch Steph Curry warm up before a game. They’re opening gates early so fans can attend and watch him.”
The two best players in the Final Four, most likely, are UNC’s Brice Johnson and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Both come with question marks in terms of their NBA prospects, but luckily for both, neither will be 23 on draft day on June 23.
Why? Because no player who has ever been 23 on draft day has started in the NBA. Johnson turns 22 on June 27, and Hield turns 23 on December 17.
“That’s an interesting stat to me,” Doherty said, “so age plays a factor. I think there’s so many biases. You see a kid so much, you pick him over. If you don’t see a player as much, there’s a little more intrigue. So with the intrigue, you don’t want to miss out on the upside, but the upside always doesn’t come. So a guy like Brice Johnson who’s had a terrific year, maybe he’s hurt because he’s been in college longer. What’s his position in the NBA? What’s the average size of a 2-guard in the NBA? Buddy Hield is 6-4. Well, the average 2-guard in the NBA is like 6-6. So can he do what he’s doing in college in the NBA? Those are the things that go through your mind as a scout. The NBA, those are the best of the best. DeMar DeRozan is a 6-7, 2-guard. So a guy like a 6-4 two-guard in college, can he get his shot off against a 6-7, 2-guard in the NBA and can he defend a 6-7, 2-guard in the NBA? (Thats the question).”