East Region preview: North Carolina has its work cut out

Everything about this season set the stage for another North Carolina national title run. Beyond a few early missteps, the Tar Heels rolled into the regular season and the ACC tournament with the attributes of a basketball bully ready to steal the nation’s lunch money. They have won seven of their last eight games and secured an ACC tournament championship on Saturday night.

Call Michael Jordan and James Worthy and tell them to order the bubbly, right? Well, hold on a second. See, the NCAA tournament selection committee made sure it would not be that simple for the powerhouse. Kris Dunn is a handful whom North Carolina could face in the second round. And a North Carolina trip to the Elite Eight probably will require a victory over Indiana or Kentucky in the Sweet 16. My goodness. On the other side of the bracket is a Notre Dame squad that defeated North Carolina in February and a West Virginia team that Buddy Hield called the most ferocious defense he’d ever faced after the Mountaineers held him to just six points in the Big 12 tournament semis.

North Carolina is a force. But the East Region is a gauntlet.

Five players to watch

Brice Johnson (North Carolina): Johnson’s stats -- 16.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.1 SPG -- could lead to consensus first-team All-America honors. It’s easy to produce such numbers when you’re the lone star on a roster. But Johnson is not. He’s surrounded by top-level talent, which makes his tally even more impressive. He’s the stud inside who could carry North Carolina to its third national title under Roy Williams. He runs the floor well. He can play with his back to the basket. He’s active on defense. And he’s a playmaker.

Tyler Ulis (Kentucky): Kentucky earned a top-four seed because Ulis (16.8 PPG, 7.2 APG, 1.4 SPG), America’s best point guard, would not quit until he’d elevated the Wildcats to that post. Ignore the “small frame, big heart” narratives. This is not some 5-foot-9 youngster seeking your sympathy. He’s a 5-9 heavyweight who is here to embarrass your favorite team. Jamal Murray is better with Ulis on the floor, and Ulis has turned a pedestrian frontcourt into a serviceable unit on a Kentucky squad with Final Four aspirations. Ulis is one of America’s best players.

Kris Dunn (Providence): Dunn won’t appreciate any “best point guard in America” conversation that doesn’t include him. He’s definitely one of America’s premier floor leaders, and he’s arguably the top two-way player. He’s a lottery pick because he can handle athletic, quick perimeter players at the next level. Dunn (16.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 6.4 APG, 2.5 SPG), along with Ben Bentil, helped Providence squeeze into the field this season. He’s the most explosive player in the region. But his turnovers (3.5 per game) scare every Friars fan.

Yogi Ferrell (Indiana): Ferrell hasn't received the same consideration as Dunn and Ulis for the title of top point guard, but this senior led Indiana to the regular season Big Ten title. And the Hoosiers are dangerous in this region with Ferrell running the show. He averaged 17.0 PPG, 5.5 APG and 1.2 SPG, and with a strong effort in the NCAA tournament, Ferrell may finally get the acclaim he deserves.

Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin): Hayes already has contributed to a pair of Final Four runs in Madison. But this trip to the tournament is probably the most meaningful berth for the junior forward because of the drama Wisconsin has endured. Bo Ryan abruptly retired in December. The team was already struggling and needed some time to adjust to Greg Gard’s offensive and defensive tweaks. But the Badgers eventually realized their potential under the new coach and reached the NCAA tournament. Their ceiling centers on the production of Hayes, who is averaging 16.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.0 APG and 1.1 SPG.

Dark horse

Michigan: If the selection committee had excluded Michigan from the field, few outside the program’s fan base would have complained. The Wolverines went 4-12 against the RPI’s top 100 and suffered a 17-point loss to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament. Now, the Wolverines must win a First Four matchup against Tulsa to earn the right to face Notre Dame in the first round. But let’s say the Michigan team that beat Maryland, Purdue, Indiana and Texas shows up. No reason to believe that right now. But if a Michigan team that shoots 38.4 percent from the 3-point line gets hot, it’s not crazy to think that John Beilein’s squad could be the author of multiple upsets.

Upset alert

Chattanooga over Indiana in the first round: The Hoosiers are a talented program; that Big Ten title proves as much. Tom Crean’s squad could advance to the second weekend and perhaps beyond that. But Chattanooga has forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of its opponents’ possessions (54th per KenPom.com). Interesting because the Indiana team it will see in the first round has committed turnovers on 19.8 percent of its possessions (283rd). Now, that doesn’t mean Chattanooga can stop this Indiana offense or withstand the Big Ten’s third-ranked per-possession defense. But this could be an interesting game.

Matchup we'd love to see

Indiana vs. Kentucky in the second round: Is this a trick question? Everyone not named Chattanooga and Stony Brook should hope for this Indiana-Kentucky clash in the second round. The two schools refuse to play each other in the regular season, so this is a rare opportunity. Don’t mess this up, Chattanooga and Stony Brook. Just kidding. Feel free to mess it up. That’s what March is all about.