Three Hits: UNC advances despite turnovers

Here are three observations from North Carolina’s 78-71 NCAA tournament win over Villanova Friday in the Round of 64:

1. North Carolina was its own worst enemy against the Wildcats, and it nearly made Roy Williams wait until next season for his 700th win.

The Tar Heels led by as many as 20 points in the early going, but could not seem to close out coach Jay Wright’s team, eventually turning the ball over enough to allow the Wildcats to tie the game in the second half. UNC finished with 17 turnovers in the game — four separate players logged at least three giveaways. North Carolina finished dead last in the ACC with 15.3 turnovers per game, so this was not a complete surprise, but it still stood out at the worst of times.

With its small lineup more than likely giving up an edge on the boards, UNC can ill afford to be so inefficient with the basketball if it wants to continue to advance in March.

The good news? Villanova is/was nearly as bad at holding onto the ball.

As my colleague Jay Clemons pointed out in his pre-tourney column, the last five times North Carolina and Villanova have met in the NCAAs the winner has advanced to the Final Four, including four national title winners (1982, 1985, 2005, 2009). Judging by the on-court product in Kansas City, that trend is not likely to continue this season.

2. It seems odd that P.J. Hairston is the pivotal figure triggering Williams’ offense since, you know, he wasn’t starting just a couple months ago. Yet here we are.

Hairston, left hand bandaged and all, picked up where he left off in the ACC tournament, torching Villanova to the tune of 23 points (7-of-11 shooting, 5 of 7 from 3-point range) while making big plays down the stretch. He also led the team with five rebounds and three steals. The sophomore from Greensboro, N.C., has scored at least 20 points in four of his last six games.

North Carolina is 6-2 when Hairston reaches the 20-point mark.

Going forward, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige will need to continue to provide consistency in the scoring column, but the trend is clear: as Hairston goes, so go the Tar Heels. It will be interesting to see how far that is with (presumably) Kansas waiting in the Round of 32.

3. Speaking of those Jayhawks, barring a historic/monumental upset by Western Kentucky, the Tar Heels will need to submit a much-more efficient effort to stand a chance against the South region’s top seed.

Williams’ old program is once again near the top of the charts in defensive efficiency (5th nationally) and, unlike Villanova, has a dominant shot-blocker inside to turn away easy baskets. The Wildcats were not exactly unimpressive defensively this season (25th), but when paired with a much-better offense, the Jayhawks would more than likely capitalize on another slow UNC start. It may seem obvious, but for the Tar Heels to stay within striking distance of the Jayhawks Sunday, they will likely need some combination of the following to happen:

— Limit offensive rebounds
— Keep the Jayhawks off the charity stripe (tied 36th nationally in free throw attempts)
— Hold Ben McLemore under 20 points
— Keep turnover totals under 12
— Get Hairston and Bullock going from 3-point range

That’s asking a lot, but no one ever said knocking off a 1-seed was easy.

North Carolina’s schizophrenic effort against Villanova made for an interesting game — at least when contrasted with a 20-point blowout — but left Roy Williams with plenty of coaching points over the next 48 hours.