As the Tar Heels head into their Sweet 16 game against Washington State, the minds of the Tar Heel faithful have been eased thanks to two blowout victories, including a game against the talented Arkansas Razorbacks that was over by halftime. While the Heels were 32-2 entering this tournament, the majority of those victories have been closer, uglier conference games, and these convincing wins were welcome respites from results in conference play.
There are several plausible phenomena that could explain this. First and foremost is the return of a healthy Ty Lawson. Another possibility is that, despite a weak year and receiving only 4 tournament bids, the ACC prepared North Carolina well for tournament play. But perhaps both the most important and most surprising key to UNC’s dominance in the first two rounds has been the play of the frontcourt players not named Tyler.
The offensive efficiency of Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson has been simply unreal. Thompson has scored 31 points on 14-16 shooting from the field playing for only 40 total minutes in two games, and Stepheson has scored 22 points on 10-11 shooting. This is in stark contrast to most of their performances this season.
Whether UNC’s other frontcourt players can continue anything close to this level of success for the rest of the NCAA Tournament. However, there does seem to be a direct connection between Deon Thompson playing well and either Tar Heel success or inferior opponents. The Tar Heels are 7-0 this season and win by an average margin of 29 points when Deon Thompson makes at least six field goals. But those seven teams are combined 116-111. Carolina is also 7-0 when Alex Stepheson makes at least four field goals, but the quality of the teams is similar
So, does UNC win big because Thompson and Stepheson play well, or do they only play well when the Heels would have won by 30 points anyway? Whatever the case may be, these two players will likely need to deliver more good performances in order to win the national championship.