UNC gets job done against Wagner, but much tougher test awaits in Michigan State

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is reality, and then perception.

Reality is a final score: No. 1 North Carolina 90, No. 16 Wagner 62. The top-seeded team in the West Region, a blue blood with the most wins in NCAA Tournament history, whooping an undersized squad making its first appearance in the Big Dance. It’s four double-digit scorers, a margin comfortable enough for walk-ons to run out the clock, and the best field-goal percentage UNC has had in a tournament game since 2016.

“I mean, with a 30-point win,” Harrison Ingram said, “it’s hard to say you played bad.”

Which is where perception comes in.

Perception that, moving locker to locker in a cramped concrete room in the bowels of Spectrum Center, was basically unanimous.

“As a team, definitely didn’t have our best performance, and individually, a lot of guys didn’t have their best performances,” sophomore guard Seth Trimble said. “We know we have to pick it up.”

Both things can simultaneously be true: that North Carolina should be glad it won Thursday, advancing to play Michigan State in the second round … and also that it cannot be satisfied with its performance against Wagner if it hopes to upend the ninth-seeded Spartans on Saturday.

Despite what the box score says, North Carolina did not play particularly well versus the worst team in the entire field. (That’s not an opinion, by the way; that’s strictly according to KenPom’s rankings, which slotted Wagner 291st out of 361 teams.) The Seahawks haven’t had enough players, due to injuries, to run a live practice since December.

And against that team, in front of a de facto home crowd, North Carolina … still had six first-half turnovers? Still allowed the Seahawks to make five of their nine second-half 3-point tries?

“That wasn’t,” freshman Elliot Cadeau said, “our best basketball.”

And the players in that locker room can say so, bluntly, because they’ve shown what their best basketball looks like. Hanging 100 on SEC champion Tennessee. Sweeping Duke. The Tar Heels more than earned the program’s 18th No. 1 seed — the most by any school in tournament history — and one lackluster game does not erase that.

But one more lackluster game could — especially if Michigan State plays as well as it did Thursday, when it throttled Mississippi State by 18 points.

That version of the Spartans? Well, they looked a lot like the top-5 preseason team many had billed them as. “I’m very proud of my team,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It was a tough, rugged game, and we haven’t been bringing that all the time this year — and I thought we did a helluva job.”

Paxson Wojcik — whose father, Doug, is a former UNC and current Michigan State assistant — said he and his North Carolina teammates were able to watch some of the Spartans’ win before they took the court vs. Wagner. Not much, but enough. Wojcik has watched most of Michigan State’s games this season anyway, largely because of his dad, so his analysis carries some heft.

And Wojcik, too, was impressed by the version of the Spartans who played on Thursday.

“When they’re clicking on all cylinders,” Wojcik said, “they’re one of the best teams in the country.”

That’s why, for lack of a better term, North Carolina cannot afford to play with its food again if it wants to advance to the Sweet 16.

UNC’s calling card all season has been its defense. Per KenPom, the Tar Heels are sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. And during one month-long stretch in December and January, Hubert Davis’ team rated as the best defensive team in the entire country. “It hasn’t been any secret,” Davis said. “We’ve identified what allows us to have success, and that’s get after it defensively, rebound, and take care of the basketball.”

North Carolina did two of those three things vs. Wagner. (The turnovers are a different story.) But it held the Seahawks under one point per possession, in line with the team’s season-long standard. It won the rebounding battle, 43-24.

And yet, Davis did not sound satisfied when he spoke from the postgame dais.

“I felt like in the first half we had moments where we weren’t checking any of those boxes, and that’s something, as you continue to move forward and specifically against Michigan State, you just can’t do that,” he added. “You’ve got to be sound in all three of those areas.”

Graduate center Armando Bacot, who was named to his first All-ACC defensive team this season, posted his sixth straight NCAA Tournament game with 15 or more rebounds on Thursday. He’s already etched in this tournament’s history, for his epic streak of six double-doubles in the 2022 postseason. Yet Bacot, asked to grade his defensive performance vs. the Seahawks, didn’t lean into any of that.

He gave himself an F.

“I was terrible defensively,” Bacot said. “It was unacceptable, me on the defensive end. I thought it kind of leaked into the other guys.”

That is not necessarily what you want to hear from someone playing their 168th college basketball game. But perhaps, for those UNC fans (and players) seeking solace, an old Dean Smith quote should be remembered: about making mistakes, and how to deal with them.

Smith had a four-step philosophy: “Recognize it; admit it; learn from it; forget it.”

Even amidst a 28-point win, North Carolina’s postgame comments show it has the first two down.

But No. 3? Learning from this performance? Only time can tell.

History, thankfully, is on the Tar Heels’ side. North Carolina is 5-0 all-time in the NCAA Tournament vs. Michigan State, and 4-0 against Izzo — including, famously, the 2009 national championship game. Michigan State is 0-2 against No. 1 seeds in the round of 32. And of UNC’s last 23 games against teams seeded ninth or worse, it is a staggering 22-1 … with the lone loss coming against Wisconsin, in the final game of Roy Williams’ career.

Those statistics are real. And they’re encouraging.

But they’re not enough, alone, to keep North Carolina on its desired trajectory.

“We’ve got to do a better job going into Saturday because Michigan State is a really good ball club,” R.J. Davis said. “We’ve got to come ready to play.”

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(Photo of Wagner’s Julian Brown and North Carolina’s Seth Trimble: Bob Donnan / USA Today)

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