There are a lot of Cougar fans out there who probably wanted to see Arkansas beat North Carolina last weekend, and I don’t blame them. But I wasn’t one of them.
This is the matchup I wanted. This is the Rose Bowl vs. Michigan, the Holiday Bowl vs. Texas, or the Rose Bowl again vs. Oklahoma (sorry, we really don’t have a basketball precedent for this). Simply put, this is the Cougs’ opportunity to beat a college sports powerhouse on national TV with the whole world watching. There aren’t many opportunities like this, and the pressure is off: If the Cougs lose, it’s another ho-hum win for the nation’s number one team on the way to a potential national championship. But if the Cougs win, well, feel free to go crazy.
And the game itself presents more story lines: possibly the nation’s best offense against the nation’s best defense. Psycho T. versus Psycho A.B. (pictured above). The coaching legend-in-waiting (Roy Williams) versus the young gun (Tony Bennett). The prospect of the final game for Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill, who turned this whole program around. To say it is a “contrast of styles” may be a huge understatement. These teams have two different philosophies and one of them will win out on Thursday. Let’s break it down.
Tempo: Contrary to popular belief, you can run on Washington State. You just can’t force it. Notre Dame made that mistake in the Round of 32 and got held to 41 points. The key is to run with intelligence on turnovers and missed baskets. Washington State has a turnover % of 16.7, good for ninth in the nation. So scratch that first idea if you’re UNC. Ultimately the Tar Heels will have to hope for missed shots by the Cougs, and pick and choose their transition opportunities. In the halfcourt, UNC should start watching tape of how Stanford and Arizona used their athleticism to get points in the paint or drive and kick out to open shooters. Low and Rochestie are susceptible to guards like Jerryd Bayless who can drive to the rim. For Wazzu, it’s a matter of making shots, and when they don’t, getting back in the set defense. Review those USC games to remind yourselves of how team defense and staying out of foul trouble can beat a team with much better athleticism.
The contrast is amazing. Washington State’s adusted offensive pace ranks 335th in the nation. North Carolina’s ranks 8th. Only a handful of teams including Bethune Cookman (336th), Delaware State (339th), and the Tortoise (782nd) rank lower.
Run-and-gun teams have problems with the Cougs. The fastest tempos in the Pac-10 belong to (in order): Washington, California, Oregon, Oregon State, and USC. The Cougars are 10-1 against those teams. Husky coach Lorenzo Romar realized this disadvantage two years ago when his team was stomped 75-47 in Pullman; their third straight loss against the Cougs. Now (thankfully) the Dawgs haven’t beaten the Cougs since, but after that day UW has switched to a slower-tempo approach against WSU and the results have been much closer: 65-61, 74-64, 56-52, and 76-73 (OT).
But how does Carolina deal with slow teams? The slowest pace in the ACC belongs to NC State. They were blown out by the heels 84-70 and 93-62. Not a good sign. But NC State isn’t on the same playing field as the Cougars. UNC’s two losses are to Duke and Maryland, two teams that play at a fast pace. That may sound distressing, but UNC hasn’t played a team that plays slow as well as Wazzu. If the heels get frustrated early on by a low-scoring game, the Cougs have a chance. If the Heels reverse it and score in bunches early, watch out.
Offense: North Carolina’s is a juggernaut. #1 in offensive rebound percentage. #2 in raw and adjusted offensive efficiency. They make 52.2% of their 2-point field goals. 38.3% of their threes. 75.4% of their foul shots. No one gets to the free throw line or works as hard under the basket to score points like Tyler Hansbrough. Cowgill will have his hands full, and if Baynes isn’t smart he could get five fouls in 25 seconds. This is where those Yoga classes last summer pay off, Aron: move when you need to and keep your arms straight up. No ticky-tack fouls. And since this isn’t the Pac-10, you will at least have the benefit of competent officiating.
Washington State’s offense should scare Carolina a bit. Why? Because we’re not just about defense. I mentioned that WSU is ninth best in the nation protecting the ball. But we’re also 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and shoot for a higher two-point percentage than UNC (53.4%). The Cougs’ effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the extra value of a three-pointer) is 54.4% or 20th best in the nation. All those low-scoring games are really a result of a decreased number of possessions. Turns out, WSU is a very good offensive team after all.
Defense: The Cougar D ranks 7th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. My biggest concern midway through the year was 3-point defense, but the numbers have become favorable for the Cougars after teams shot the lights out during the four-of-five “losing streak”. WSU allows only 33.2% from beyond the arc. Defense under the basket can survive this game, but Robbie Cowgill needs to have the game of his career. He’s the only one mobile enough to deal with Hansbrough. Baynes is your classic big big guy, and Forrest hasn’t gotten to Robbie’s level defensively yet.
North Carolina’s D is suspect, but still pretty darn good (28th in adjusted efficiency). They rebound very well – not a huge concern for the Cougs as we don’t crash the boards much on offense. However, several 1-and-done possessions are likely for WSU in this matchup, and the Cougs can’t afford many of those. UNC defends the three well (33.0%). The only thing they suffer on is holding opponents to a low total score; but when their offense is going for 90 or 100+, that’s the least of their worries. For WSU to have a chance, Carolina’s defense is going to have to be lax, and our three-point shooters (the great equalizer) need to have a very good night. Duke rained threes in UNC’s last loss this season. The Cougs don’t have to shoot the lights out to win; just avoid too many misses from the arc while playing good defense on the other side.