With the end of the Mack Brown era upon us, the basketball team is getting even less attention than usual. After losing the top four scorers (all underclassmen) from a 16-18 team, expectations coming into the season were at an all-time low. Even with a light schedule, I certainly wasn't expecting a 9-1 start.
While I've only seen the Temple game, they looked like the opposite of a Rick Barnes team in that one -- they spread the floor, moved the ball and didn't play a lot of defense. Now, after unranked opponents in their first 10 games, things are about to get serious. Texas travels to No. 14 UNC tonight and hosts No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday.
I haven't watched enough of the Longhorns to say whether they can win, but I've seen plenty of the Tar Heels. They remind me of some of the "bad" Barnes' teams -- a lot of NBA talent that doesn't fit together well. That's how a team beats Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State and loses to Belmont (at home) and UAB.
Their problems start with the suspensions of PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald, their top two wing players. They've missed the entire season, trapped in the same NCAA limbo that got Myck Kabongo. Without them, UNC is very beatable.
Marcus Paige: Their top scorer and only consistent three-point shooter. A 6'1 175 lefty PG, he can score off unorthodox angles and knock down step-back 3's; he's the one UNC player who can get hot and take over a game. The key to slowing him down is attacking him on the other end -- the Tar Heels can't afford to get him in foul trouble.
Nate Britt: A 5'11 165 freshman guard whose been pressed into a bigger role. He's small, he doesn't shoot 3's (17%) and he turns it over a lot (2.3 assists on 2.2 turnovers). He has talent, but he's not the type of guy you would expect to be the starting SG at UNC.
J.P. Tokoto: A 6'5 200 sophomore wing, he is an elite athlete who can jump out of the gym. Unfortunately, he can't shoot ... at all. He doesn't shoot 3's and he is 37% (!) from the free-throw line. Their loss to Belmont came in large part b/c Tokoto went 4-16 from the charity stripe.
James McAdoo: A 6'9 230 junior forward with high-level NBA athleticism, McAdoo was expected to carry UNC this season. Unfortunately, he can't shoot and he can't post-up, so he's really limited in the half-court. He thrived as a small-ball 5 last season, but the lack of wings has forced him to spend a lot of time the 3, where he's not as effective.
Joel James: A 6'10 280 sophomore center with an NBA body and athleticism. He reminds me of a young Kendrick Perkins ... which is not an insult! He can't create his own shot and he clogs up the paint, but he's a great rebounder who should provide an interesting challenge for Cameron Ridley.
Brice Johnson: A poor man's John Henson. A 6'9 210 sophomore jumping jack with long arms, he plays at 11+ feet. If you give him an open lane to the basket, he will dunk on you. Don't expect to score over the top of him either. The scouting report is the same as McAdoo -- keep him out of transition and off the offensive glass and make him beat you from the perimeter.
Kennedy Meeks: Imagine a fatter, slower Jared Sullinger. Meeks is a 6'9 290 freshman center -- he has wide shoulders, a huge butt, long arms and soft hands. He would have been a great LT. He's their toughest cover on the interior; he can post-up and pick apart a double-team.
** They have a few other guys who come off the bench, but Johnson and Meeks are the ones you have to worry about. Keep an eye on Isaiah Hicks, a five-star freshman forward at 6'8 220. He hasn't gotten the chance to do much, but he looks like he can play, if given the chance.
If you look at their Top 7 in total, you can see the problems caused by the absence of Hairston and McDonald. UNC has a bunch of big men but only one guy (Paige) who can shoot 3's. As a result, their 4 best players -- Paige, McAdoo, Johnson and Meeks -- can't really play together.
Here are the keys to beating UNC:
1) Run good half-court offense and keep them out of transition. If you take care of the ball and get good shots, you can set your defense and make them beat you over the top. What you don't want to do is get in a track meet; they have the athletes to beat anyone in the country.
2) Big men have to stay out of foul trouble and protect the offensive glass. UNC has 4 NBA-caliber big men in their rotation -- you don't want to get in a war of attrition with them. Johnson and Meeks, in particular, are great at killing second and third-string guys.
3) Don't let Paige beat you. He can't be a true PG on this team; the Tar Heels need him to score the ball. Make him a passer and force Tokoto and Britt (or really anyone else on their roster) to score from the perimeter.
4) Shoot the ball well. Fairly self-explanatory, since you can't expect to consistently score in the paint against all the length and athleticism of the UNC big men.
The game is at 6:00 on ESPN2, with UT as a +10.5 underdog. For those of y'all who have been following Barnes' last stand more closely, what do you think? How are you feeling about our chances tonight?
Consider this your open thread for tonight's game. Hook ‘em.