After defeating two of college basketball’s most renowned and historic programs in Duke and UCLA, the Wildcats face college basketball’s second all-time winningest program and the preseason favorite to capture the national championship, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Led by Hall-of-Fame Head Coach Roy Williams, and last year’s Naismith Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina earned its 17th regular season ACC Championship and marched to its 18th Final Four, tying UCLA for the most Final Four appearances in college basketball history.
After a surprising loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament, North Carolina reeled off four convincing victories in the NCAA tournament, with a 22-point average margin of victory. Point guard Ty Lawson, the ACC Player of the Year, dispelled all rumors that his injured right toe could make him a nonfactor, averaging over 20 points per game and six assists per game during North Carolina’s last three tournament victories.
Lawson’s toe has hampered his electrifying quickness and speed, but according to Williams and Lawson, the injury has forced the point guard to play more within the confines of the offense and has improved his perimeter shooting. Carolina enters the final four as the favorite, with the Las Vegas Hilton giving them 5-6 odds to capture their fifth NCAA Championship.
The Tar Heels’ depth, athleticism and versatility separate them from the rest of the Final Four participants. Combining that with the fact the team possesses three potential first-round draft picks, there is no reason to question why this team garnered the No. 1 preseason ranking and has cruised through this year’s NCAA tournament.
Led by legendary alumnus Williams, the Heels employ a high-octane offense. The inside/outside combination of Hansbrough and junior marksman Wayne Ellington, along with Lawson’s dribble drive ability, creates nightmare matchup problems for opponents.
Even with the loss of senior defensive stalwart Marcus Ginyard to a season-ending knee injury, the Tar Heels’ defense – the team’s only glaring weakness – has dramatically improved from the season’s start. The Tar Heels have utilized a stifling man-to-man defense that has limited their opponents to an average of 66 points per game this tournament. Meanwhile, Carolina’s offense has been averaging a tournament-best 88.8 ppg. Carolina’s depth, especially in the frontcourt with the emergence of freshman forwards Ed Davis and Tyler Zeller, give the Tar Heels a sizeable advantage off the bench.
Junior swingman Danny Green continues to emerge as an offensive force this tournament, earnings a team-high 18 points against Oklahoma. Furthermore, North Carolina’s experience will prove invaluable, as they are the only returning team from last year’s Final Four squads. This year’s squad has been labeled “the redeem team,” as they seek to avenge last year’s Final Four defeat to eventual national champion Kansas. Interestingly, Carolina’s victory over Oklahoma gave the Tar Heels 100 victories in the NCAA tournament, the most by any school in tournament history.
Defense and rebounding. For an extremely athletic and long team, the Tar Heels lacked the intensity and discipline to play effective man-to-man defense prior to the NCAA tournament. In addition, the Tar Heels are susceptible to teams who attack the offensive glass. Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, one the nation’s leading rebounders, punished North Carolina’s frontcourt with 16 rebounds.
During the tournament, Carolina has only out-rebounded two of their four opponents, which is surprising given their margin of victory and their frontcourt size. Defensively, the Tar Heels continue to improve; however, during the team’s four defeats, Carolina has surrendered an average of 84.5 ppg. This year’s squad, which returns every player from last season’s Final Four team, vividly remembers how its lackadaisical and undisciplined defense allowed Kansas to jump out to an insurmountable 40-12 lead during their 2008 semifinal matchup. A sluggish start on the defensive end would be disconcerting, as Carolina is facing a high octane Villanova offense that has averaged over 80 ppg this tournament.
What to expect
In a battle that some experts are calling David versus Goliath, this matchup is actually a lot more even than Villanova’s Cinderella victory over No. 1 seed Georgetown in the 1985 championship game.
Nevertheless, Carolina’s depth, athleticism and experience could be problematic for a Villanova squad that has answered every challenge this postseason. Villanova’s stalwart defense, which limited a very talented Duke offense to a season low and 54 points and 26.7 percent shooting, will need to be running on all cylinders to contain the best offensive team in the tournament.
Expect a frantic and up-tempo game as both teams look to run and push the ball up court. However, it would be prudent for the Wildcats to slow down the game and rely on their half-court offense. Getting into a foot race with the Tar Heels’ could prove disastrous, as evidenced by their 98-77 annihilation of Gonzaga. Expect Villanova to attack the Tar Heels’ porous defense with dribble-drive opportunities. Ultimately, Villanova will have to connect on perimeter shots to secure an upset victory.
Strong 3-point performances by Dwayne Anderson, Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes, Villanova’s primary outside threats, could negate Carolina’s interior advantage. Entering the Final Four as the tournament’s hottest team, the Wildcats are hoping to ride the emotional high of the their epic 78-76 regional final victory over a Pittsburgh Panthers team deemed one of the tournament favorites.
Unfortunately, Villanova’s memorable tournament run could be in jeopardy, as the Tar Heels’ experience and frontcourt depth could make the difference in a highly contested matchup that may come down to the wire, eerily reminiscent of Villanova’s 2005 67-66 regional semifinal loss to North Carolina. Let’s hope the officials don’t determine the outcome of this matchup.
UNC 92, ‘Nova 90