The Texas Longhorns play the North Carolina Tar Heels tomorrow in what will arguably be Texas' hardest game of the year. It's a true road game. Right before Christmas. Against the second-most talented team in the country. With more experience. More size. More depth. And more tar.
The venerable Ken Pomeroy gives Texas a 21% chance of winning but ultimately sees a 10 point margin of defeat (80-70), which are respectively higher and lower than I'd have predicted at the beginning of the year. I'll be happy if the young Horns can keep it to a single-digit margin while remaining competitive throughout. Naturally, I'd be ecstatic with a W.
While a moral victory isn't nearly as satisfying as an actual one, a close, competitive loss would be viewed positively by the coaching staff as well as the tournament committee at the end of the year. Provided, of course, the Horns can take that positive momentum and put forth a strong conference campaign.
All right, so now that I've Negative Nancied tomorrow's game enough, let's talk Tar Heel personnel and how the Horns can pull out a victory. Before we start though, a couple pieces of required reading: (1) tjarks' UNC Scouting Report, and (2) Reggieball's Inside the Numbers Preview at BON.
TAR HEELS PERSONNEL
The UNC engine starts with sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, one of my favorite players in the country. He's a visionary passer, good in half-court sets but absolute money in transition. He took over for the God-awful Larry Drew midway through last year and completely changed the dynamic of the team from NIT-bound to Elite 8. After posting a 40.7% assist rate last year (7th best in the nation), Marshall upped it to 44.9% (4th). That's 10.2 assists per game (2nd), an amazing number for D-1. He still turns it over a fair amount, but because he connects on so many passes, his A:TO ratio sits at a robust 4.07.
The problem with Marshall is that he hasn't improved in other facets of the game. He's a huge defensive liability (more on that later), and more importantly, he can't shoot. Check that--he can shoot when confident enough. Against Kentucky, Marshall scored 8 points. He missed badly on an early 3 but ending up hitting 3-6 overall, 2-4 from deep. That's really all the Tar Heels need from him, but too often they don't receive it--he has a brutal 44.1% eFG% on the year.
Junior Dexter Strickland starts at the 2 and shifts to the 1 as Marshall's primary backup. By this point in his career, Strickland knows his role. He's the backcourt defensive stopper (like tjarks, I expect he'll shadow J'Covan Brown all game) and 5th man on offense. Even though he starts, Strickland ranks just 5th on the team in minutes played (64.6% of avail min) and 8th in usage (14.2% of poss). However, he's a capable slasher and understands how to score efficiently. He's averaging 8.1 PPG, taking just one 3-pointer on the year while hitting 57.6% from the field.
Freshman P.J. Hairston is a sparkplug scorer off the bench as a catch-and-shoot guy. Of his 64 field goal attempts, 49 have been 3-pointers. He's hitting 38.8% from deep and just 33.3% from inside the arc, so it's hard to argue with the methodology. When Hairston is on the court, he absolutely has to be tagged by Texas. After Harrison Barnes, he's the guy I most fear going NBA Jam "He's On Fire!" mode. Senior Justin Watts is just a guy and frequent Club Trillion contributor, but an asset as the ninth best player on the team.
Thus far this year, the returning super sophomores have been case studies as to why it's better to declare for the draft earlier than later. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger has been hampered by injury, Kentucky's Terrence Jones exhibited a disappearing act at the worst possible times (2nd half vs. UNC and at Indiana), and Baylor's Perry Jones III is at risk of being overshadowed by freshman Quincy Miller. Yet none of those situations are as puzzling as the non-development of Harrison Barnes.
Barnes has become a lethal spot-up shooter, with jumps in FG% (42.3% to 46.3%) and 3-FG% (34.4% to 48.5%). However, he's had his troubles when forced to put the ball on the floor. As a result, his efficiency has suffered. Despite his proclivity as a scorer (team-leading 16.1 PPG), Barnes' high usage results in just a 105.7 O-Rtg, 8th on the team and lower than Marshall's. Also concerning is Barnes' regression in pretty much every other facet of the game. He's an apathetic defender despite having a frame and athleticism far superior to the players he guards. His D-Reb% has dropped from 12.8% to 8.1%, and A-Rate from 10.0% to 5.9%.
It's almost worth wondering if the Tar Heels wouldn't be a more efficient ballclub with sophomore Reggie Bullock in the game. Due to mediocre play as a freshman capped by a season-ending knee injury, Bullock was a forgotten man going into this sophomore year. Yet if one recalls, he was a 5* and ranked 10th overall in the same class as Barnes.
As a high school shooting guard, Bullock is more comfortable on the perimeter. He's still more of a guard-forward hybrid. A small growth spurt has provided him with amazing length to check both 2s and 3s--he reminds me of ex-Kentucky sixth man DeAndre Liggins. Like Hairston, Bullock is an offensive juggernaut in limited minutes. His O-Rtg of 125.9 and eFG% of 63.1% both ranked first on the team. After not being able to hit the broad side of a barn from deep last year (29.6% on 98 attempts), he's become an effective 3-point shooter (42.1%). And unlike Hairston and Barnes, Bullock is an outstanding defender that really should be playing more.
North Carolina's twin tower combination of junior John Henson and senior Tyler Zeller is a "rich get richer" travesty of epic proportions. Both players were first round picks last year but instead returned to Chapel Hill to pursue a National Championship. Rick Barnes surely wants to know what that feels like.
Henson has been North Carolina's best player this season. He's taken his upside potential from last year and realized it. He's lauded as the ACC's returning Defensive Player of the Year, an honor almost surely derived from his shot-blocking prowess. This year, Henson is holding serve, averaging 3.4 BPG with an 11.3% Blk%. He benefits some from playing at the 4 next to a taller Zeller, and still carries a slighter frame that allows wide-bodied bigs to nestle into the paint. Unfortunately, Texas has no one that can really challenge Henson's defense. The Longhorns' best bet may be seeing if Jaylen Bond's and Alexi Wangmene's brute force can draw Henson into some foul trouble.
Where Henson has really improved his game is on the offensive end of the court. He's been pretty incredible in and around the basket, with a newly built arsenal of post moves that leaves even credible defenders like Terrence Jones and Draymond Green looking silly. He's also a solid jump shooter that's comfortable putting the ball on floor. Sum all that up, and it results in a FG% improvement from 50.0% to 55.6%. One thing Henson can't do is shoot free throws, and if Texas weren't thin in frontcourt bodies, it would be prudent to make the Plastic Man earn his points from the charity stripe (career 47.0% FT%).
Zeller combines his talent and experience to make him one of the smartest players on the court. He excels at positioning, getting deep in the paint for easy turn-and-score buckets and boxing his way into corralling rebounds. Zeller has particularly embraced the latter role, grabbing 13.1% of offensive rebounds. He's proficient at getting "easy buckets", and he's one of the best transition big men in recent memory. Unlike Henson, Zeller loves the Charity Stripe (78.7% FT%) and doesn't mind getting fouled to get points.
He's a lesser player than Henson on the defensive end, and he seems to know it. He'll defer to Henson, allowing him to be the primary help defender and aggressive rebounder. Due to his often substantial height advantage, Zeller still is putting up fine numbers on defense--2.9% blk%, 17.1% D-Reb%, 8.2 RPG.
Backup freshman James Michael McAdoo is unarguably the most talented backup in college basketball. He's projected to be a lottery pick despite averaging just 14.2 MPG. He's been very quiet in big games (just 4 points against MSU, 2 each against Wisconsin and UK), but has the potential to explode at any time. In UNC's last game against Nicholls St., McAdoo set season highs in points (14) and rebounds (7). Fellow freshman Desmond Hubert is strictly on mop-up duty.
TEAM PHILOSOPHY IN FOUR FACTORS
Despite the balanced numbers, Carolina is an offense-first team that loves to run. The Tar Heels' adjusted tempo is 74.5 possessions per game. That's third in the nation, and results in approximately 7 extra possessions than the average D-1 team. If you're wont to run, beware against the Heels. It's not a defensive thing either in garnering those extra possessions. The aforementioned Inside the Numbers study shows that the Tar Heels love to hoist shots early in the possession, resulting in an organically quicker pace.
Even with the increased pace, UNC sits at 7th overall in offensive efficiency (115.6) and 10th overall in defensive efficiency (87.3). Offensively, North Carolina's "I Wanna Go Fast" philosophy means limited turnovers (16.7% TO%, 14th in the nation) and easier generation of offensive rebounds (38.8% O-Reb%, 27th). Both are great ways to increase the chances of scoring more often. Aside from primary ballhandler Marshall, the Heels just don't give the ball away very much, especially since there's usually little need to put the ball on the floor. And aside from the smallish 2-guard Strickland, there's above-average height at every position to pull down rebounds and shoot over defenders. The Heels are fine at shooting (52.9% eFG% / 54th, 44.3 FTA/FGA / 79th), paving the way to more points.
Defensively, the numbers are very height-driven. Strangely, the Tar Heels give up a lot of offensive rebounds (29.8% O-Reb%, 78th). Less strangely, the Heels aren't big into pressure D (19.3% TO%, 256th) or fouling (18.4 FTA/FGA, 1st). They'd rather just sag off, let you shoot over their height, wait for the miss, and push the ball the other way (43.7% eFG%, 40th). Mark Titus at Grantland had some strongly negative commentary about North Carolina's D (or lack thereof), and it's possible to posit that if the Tar Heels weren't simply just taller and more athletic than their counterparts, the defensive numbers could be much, much worse.
THREE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Attack the Defensive Weak Spots
Like Pai Mei's Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Techique, there's pressure points in North Carolina's D to attack. Basically, avoid Strickland/Bullock on the wing and Henson in the paint. The first, and most obvious, position to attack is point guard, where Kendall Marshall just isn't very good. Watching him play defense, it seems like Marshall understands the basic concepts, he just doesn't have the quickness nor footwork to keep up with blowby point guards.
Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor continually took Marshall off the dribble until Roy Williams decided to switch defenders to Strickland. However, Kentucky's Marquis Teague was too inexperienced to understand how to attack Marshall's mediocre D. Texas' Myck Kabongo needs to put aside the fact that he's just a freshman and continually prod Marshall until he breaks. There's no way Williams takes Strickland off J'Covan Brown to stop Kabongo, so Myck will need to keep shooting effectively and penetrating intelligently to jumpstart the Horns' halfcourt offense.
The other weak spot Texas may be able to exploit is Harrison Barnes. While defending the 6'8" Barnes will be a huge conundrum, on offense, Texas should be able to run Julien Lewis and Sheldon McCllelan through random ballscreens until the guards can get open. Harrison is long, but he's not quick nor motivated enough to battle through screen after screen trying to lock down his man. Texas should be able to get its fair share of open shots on the perimeter and avoid the teeth (i.e., John Henson's wicked wingspan) of the defense. They'll just have to convert those shots into points.
Limit Transition Play
As previously mentioned, Carolina wants to run. It's where Marshall's vision is most effective, providing the easiest 3-point looks for the wings and easy dunks for Zeller/Henson. In short, easy points for Heels lead to runaway scores. When Marshall is forced into a half-court offense, he becomes less effective since teams have no problem sagging off him, daring him to shoot. Because North Carolina goes with two interior bigs, there's less perimeter help for Marshall, especially in the starting lineup. Barnes can shoot but can't create; Strickland can create but can't shoot. It's incredible to think about, but there's no J'Covan Brown on this team--a perimeter player with an all-around offensive game.
Given the height disadvantage, it may be tempting for Texas to keep pace and try to use quickness over length to run up and down the court. But it may make more sense to grind down North Carolina in the halfcourt. Concede rebounds on misses, but hurry back and play pressure D. Kabongo, Brown, and Lewis should all be able to limit North Carolina on the perimeter. I like Reggieball's quote: "If [Marshall] has to dribble all the way up the floor, then half of the battle has already been won." It's this last key that will be the linchpin...
Trade Blows on the Interior
Where North Carolina has the clear advantage is inside. Henson and Zeller are both way more talented than their Texas upperclassmen counterparts, Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman. But the Wang+Chap combo absolutely need to bring their A games. Wangmene has the lower body to disrupt a finesse player like Henson--he should be watching NBA Playoffs tape of Chuck Hayes manhandling Pau Gasol. Likewise, Chapman has the size and speed to keep pace with Zeller, something not many big guys can do. It's very unlikely that Texas wins these matchups, but if it can play UNC to a draw, there's hope. Limit easy post entries, box out on defensive rebounds, make UNC earn their interior points.
Stopping Harrison Barnes will be another problem entirely. A three-guard set with Julien Lewis is practically begging for Barnes to shoot 3 after 3 over vertically-challenged defense. McCllelan may not fare much better, but a better option than Lewis. Putting Jonathan Holmes on Barnes is intriguing, as his size alone may be enough to push Barnes out of his comfort zone. In order garner some Holmes-Barnes matchups, Jaylen Bond will need to play major minutes. He'll probably be the most physically strong player on the court, but will need to bring the mental component as well: no cheap fouls, no easy positioning mistakes.
Overall, I'm not optimistic. Texas has played fairly well to date and has shown all-around improvement from the Oregon St/NC St losses to the UCLA/Temple wins. Brown and Kabongo should keep the UNC backcourt's hands full, but I just keep having nightmares about the Tar Heels pummeling Texas inside. Add in the home court factor, and I see North Carolina running away with this one, 86-72.