For Texas Longhorn basketball, Saturday is huge. We've been pointing to this game as a program since being jobbed by Duke in the big dance last season.
We've been pointing to this game since Damion James and Dexter Pittman decided to come back to school. Since Jordan Hamilton, J'Covan Brown, and Avery Bradley were wrecking shit in open runs in the off season, since Texas was ranked preseason number 2, and since it was evident that the teams on our schedule at least for the first month and half would provide little if any sort of test. For Texas Longhorn basketball Saturday, it gets real.
On the other side of the coin, the UNC Tar Heels have faced some stiff tests losing a tough ball game at Rupp Arena to the upstart Kentucky Wildcats and winning convincingly against a talented Michigan State club trying to find its identity. The Heels have been tested, and we've got a pretty good idea who they are and who they want to be as a result of these tests.
The Tar Heel Front Court
The bellcows of the Carolina pivot are bookend bigs 6-9 forward Deon Thompson and 6-10 forward Ed Davis. These two are long, strong, and athletic and when they aren't bludgeoning you on the offensive glass for second chance points, they're beating your bigs down the floor on the secondary break for easy post up opportunities on whatever poor bastard that gets back, likely your small forward or shooting guard. If you're good enough to limit these aspects of their games, Davis and Thompson are above average back to the basket scorers. Ed Davis will look to pin you deep while Thompson has a better face up midrange game out of the post. These two compliment each other well.
Off the bench it's a who's who of college basketball recruiting and UNC may have the deepest frontcourt in the nation because of it. 7-0 Center Tyler Zeller and the 6-10 Wear twins come off the bench looking to continue to run, rebound, and post, but not necessarily in that order. This is where things may get dicey for the Horns but we'll get to that. 6-10 fly swatter John Henson, Jr. will also get minutes and he's more of a defensive specialist at this point in his career.
The Tar Heel Backcourt
Choose the cliche of your choice, but I'm going to go with everyone's favorite, the straw that stirs the drink, to describe Larry Drew, II. He's the Heel's only legitimate point guard at this point in the season and the success of the Heels bigs and shooters alike, largely depends on Drew's ability to create, especially in a halfcourt setting. If you allow Drew to penetrate and break down your defense, he's going to find Ginyard for open looks, or he's going to decimate your block out assignments by creating help situations. Either outcome is instant offense for the Heels because Ginyard can flat out shoot it, and Davis and Thompson will own the backboards if your 3 has to drop down and blockout the weakside glass because Damion James or Dex Pittman slides to help. We've already talked about Ginyard, a 6-5 AJ Abram who's looking to spot up and shoot it, but the other wing is 6-5 sophomore Will Graves who has deep range although he's struggled with his shot early in 2009. Dexter Stickland is a true freshman backup point guard who has struggled with turnovers, but he's lightning quick and a talented shooter. He'll be a great player down the road, but he struggles when pressured.
Keys to the Game for the Horns
This game may be the easiest game to breakdown of all the Horn's heavy weight matches. It's such a wheelhouse matchup for Texas. But to win, the Horns must do the following three things, and I'd like you to be the judge of their ability to pull these items off.
1) Keep Larry Drew in front and out of the lane.
Especially in the halfcourt. So much of what Carolina tries to do is predicated upon Drew creating offensive looks by breaking down your defense. Keep him out the lane and guys like Ginyard go from being good to decent shooters. Stay in front of Drew and maintain the integrity of your blockout shell and players like Thompson and Davis go from being good to decent rebounders. It's quite simple. An added bonus is that it protects Pittman from picking up cheap helpside fouls. Remember, Carolina doesn't have a 3 man like Xavier Henry or an off guard like UK's Bledsoe to create offense and take that burden off of Drew. Drew creates or no one does for the Heels. Does Texas have someone that's up for this task? You tell me.
2) Control Carolina's secondary break.
Texas can do this by threatening the offensive glass and making the UNC bigs stay at home for a count to make sure a defensive rebound is controlled before getting into transition. Remember, the Carolina bigs are looking to run to the block, wait for a reversal, and pin the mismatched defender before your big can get up the floor. Texas bigs must also run to the floor defensively which should be no problem for guys like James and Wangmene. Pittman will have to battle through this aspect of the ballgame, but smothering on ball transition defense from Balbay and Bradley can really help to jam the break. Again, Texas has the athletes to control this component of the Tar Hell offensive arsenal.
3) Accept Carolina's challenge to play uptempo.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess Barnes will approach the game similarly to Kentucky in that he'll welcome running up and down with the Heels counting on his advantage on the perimeter to show over the course of a ballgame that will see more possessions than your garden variety tilt. If we accept the challenge, we have to be willing to accept the fact that guys like Wangmene, Hill, and even Chapman may see signficant minutes at the expense of Big Dex's, and that's okay. An uptempo game mitigates the disparity in frontcourt talent and accentuates our advantage on the perimeter. As John Mackovic told James Brown, "Come to run."
I like the defensive matchups of James and Pittman on Thompson and Davis respectively. James' athleticism should bother Thompson's face up game while Pittman's strength should confound Davis' ability to carve out space for offense. On the perimeter, Balbay can literally take Drew out the game while Bradley is the perfect matchup for a player like Ginyard, someone that wants to spot up but can't handle. Bradley has the athleticism and size to get to Ginyard's shot especially if Ginyard can't create space or threaten with the dribble. Again, if Texas can control Carolina's break and prevent easy baskets, the Horns should be able to smother Carolina in a half court setting.
On offense, first and foremost, Texas must never have Balbay and Mason play any minutes together. There will be plenty of glue time for Mason with Brown or Lucas at the point. Backcourts of Bradley and Brown, Balbay and Bradley, Balbay and Brown only, please, unless you want to mix in some Lucas. Other than that, spread the floor, push the tempo, and enjoy a ballgame against a team that gave up 45 first half points to UK and 80 plus points to an Izzo coached club. Texas can and will score if UNC falls prey to its own DNA.
Hell if I'm Roy Williams, I'm tempted to slow the game down, play Strickland and Drew together as much as possible and try to body blow the Horns inside. If they play typical Tar Heel ball, their lack of ball handling depth coupled with their propensity to turn the ball over vs. pressure will get the Heels run out of Jerry World's gym. But quite frankly, I don't think Roy can help himself. So help yourself to a satisfying win against college basketball's most storied program.
Hopefully somebody from Carolina March will swing by. Funny post here (The Strange Fantasies of Rick Barnes).