Monday night, 9:21. Ford Field, Detroit. CBS.
This has become a routine for me now: Overanalyzing the statistical profiles of #1 seeds we’re about to play and convincing myself we’re massive underdogs. I’m going to try to keep this preview short, to avoid that danger (and because I need to get some sleep tonight).
|Category||MSU Off||Nat Rk||UNC Def||Nat Rk|
|Category||UNC Off||Nat Rk||MSU Def||Nat Rk|
Unlike our previous two opponents, the scary half of North Carolina’s profile is the offensive side. This team takes care of the ball, shoots the ball very efficiently (51.1/38.4/75.8) and crashes the glass almost as well as we do. And they do it all at a breakneck pace (adjusted tempo=73.8).
I’m not going to run down UNC’s playing rotation in detail (partly because the numbers are so imposing). We know all about their two incomparable leaders: Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. And Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, and Bobby Frasor can all play a little bit, too. When this team is playing to its potential, it’s more like watching an NBA team than a college team: Everybody can knock down perimeter shots and make plays going toward the basket. They’re the one team in the tournament field that has the ability to turn the scoring switch on seemingly at will.
At the risk of sounding like Dan Patrick, you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them. My hunch is we’re going to have to play them straight up and hope that Kalin Lucas and Goran Suton are good enough at this point to go toe to toe with Lawson and Hansborough. The rest of the defense can’t afford to sag off the other UNC players to help out on the two stars. Once Ellington and Green get going, things really start to fall apart for the defense. Assuming Walton doesn’t guard Lawson, he may be able to take one of those two guys out of the game on offense.
Playing them straight up should have the added advantage of keeping us in good rebounding position. Our only potential defensive advantage on paper is rebounding. If we can limit the Tar Heels to one shot per possession, that would go a long ways to giving us a shot at outscoring them.
And outscoring them is what we will need to do. In UNC’s four losses this season (Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland, Florida State), the Tar Heels still managed to stay above 1.00 points per possession. (They didn’t have a single outing below that threshold all season.) But they allowed their opponents to score an average of 1.10 points per possession in those games.
On paper, UNC doesn’t look like they’re well positioned to take advantage of our occasional turnover issues. I’m not so sure, though. Athletic, man-to-man teams are exactly the kind of opponent our turnover issues have cropped up against this season. We’ll see if this team has turned the page for good on those issues. If UNC comes out overplaying on the perimeter, we have to use the pressure against them to create points going toward the basket.
Beyond that, we’re going to need to crash the glass with abandon (it’s our single trump card on both ends of the court) and knock down whatever good 3-point looks we get. All four of the teams that have beaten UNC this year shot at least 37.5% from 3-point range in doing so.
North Carolina’s only outstanding statistical factor on defense is free throw rate. With their across-the-board athleticism, the Tar Heels don’t end up in positions requiring them to foul with much frequency. If, however, we can somehow get Hanbrough to pick up a couple early fouls, that’d be helpful. He ended up with 4 fouls in 3 of their 4 losses. Raymar Morgan’s newfound offensive confidence could be an asset in that department, since Hansbrough doesn’t block a lot of shots.
In terms of pace, MSU is talking a lot about beating UNC at its own game by pushing the ball on offense. In reality, I think they’re going to have to walk a very fine line. They certainly need to take whatever fast break opportunities are there for high-percentage shots. But they can’t make bad decisions with the ball that will allow Lawson to work his magic going the other way. There’s a temptation to say an up-tempo game favors us because of our depth (10-player rotation vs. 7-player rotation, but you’re playing with fire if you push that line of thinking past a certain point. Lucas, Walton, and Lucious have to make smart decisions with the ball for 40 minutes.
In short, the players need to do everything they didn’t do the last time these two teams met in this location. In the recap of that game, I concluded with the following:
The game was obviously a major disappointment, both in terms of on-court performance and the crowd environment. We can only hope the team has now hit rock bottom; there’s no place to go but up.
This team has climbed a long, long way up since that game–farther up than any of us could have hoped. The only question that remains: Can they ascend all the way to the peak of the college basketball mountain?
My guess is there aren’t going to be any shortcuts to get to that peak. As brilliant as Tom Izzo has been in the last two games, I just don’t see a strategic advantage in this game. We’re simply going to have to outplay them–and even that may not be enough.
There you go, I think I just convinced myself we’re massive underdogs. So we’ll end there, and hope that the team proves me wrong one more time.
P.S. Kenpom predicts an 80-77 UNC win in a 74-possession game. For what it’s worth, that’s a considerably tighter predicted margin than the 7.5-point spread the guys in Vegas have posted.