The 2009 North Carolina team is the most talented group of basketball players at the college level of the last ten years. In fact, it requires a look back to the 1995-96 season and the Kentucky Wildcats of Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer to find a team that combined high-end talent witch such astonishing depth. No less than nine of the Wildcats from this team went on to play in the NBA. The Wildcats sported a 22-point average margin of victory and played a style that took complete advantage of their depth and athleticism, pressing on every possession and overwhelming teams with their talent and speed.
It seems likely that at least seven players on the current incarnation of the Tar Heels will go on to play in the NBA (Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, with Tyler Zeller (injured) and Larry Drew also having a shot down the road). The Tar Heels' average margin of victory is 26.8 points, albeit through the softest part of the schedule, and there is little doubt that UNC plays a style that takes complete advantage of their three biggest strengths (depth, skill, and speed).
With all that said, that dominant Wildcat team did lose two games. Kentucky finished the year 34-2, falling to two eventual Final Four participants in UMass (in just their second game of the season) and Mississippi State (in the SEC Championship game). This North Carolina team is good enough to run the table: but will they? If not, what will it take to beat them? As the Tar Heels prepare to close out 2009 by visiting Nevada tonight, let's investigate a potential game plan to take on the Tar Heels and then examine who has the personnel to pull it off.
North Carolina's offense is absolutely devastating. Averaging 95.8 points per game with a tempo ranked in the top three by Ken Pomeroy, the Tar Heels run downhill on every offensive possession. However, as a coach my primary concern would be their defense. UNC forces 7.4 more turnovers per game than they commit, and their rebounding margin is over eight per game. The top points in my gameplan to beat the Tar Heels would be:
- Take care of the basketball / nothing careless, especially out high on the floor
- Do not hesitate to attack the offensive board
That second point may seem counter-intuitive to some: if UNC is so fast, don't you want to forget the offensive board and retreat back to play defense? There are many ways to skin a cat, and that is surely one of them. However, by sending at least two (preferably three or four) players to the offensive glass, it puts some pressure on the North Carolina rebounders to do their job. You may give up an occasional leak-out, but overall success is what is being sought.
My additional offensive point would an emphasis on the value of ball and shot fakes. The North Carolina defense prides itself on pressure, so the players tend to react to even slight movements of the ball. Discipline is not their strongest characteristic, so ball fakes (to get defenders to jump out of position) and shot fakes (to get their bigs in foul trouble) would be a huge part of any game plan against the Heels.
Defensively, there are three major strategies I would ask my team to execute going up against North Carolina. First, I would apply light full-court pressure on every possession where I could. Again, most would look at this as counter-intuitive. However, the best way to slow down a team's fast break is to set up the defense early. Once Ty Lawson gets a head of steam, he and his teammates are nearly impossible to guard. So, we would look to slow them down out of the gate with light man-to-man or even-front zone defense, sagging back and just delaying their offense for that split second that is needed to set the defense.
Protection of the paint would be a high priority. Carolina's offensive attack is based on penetration, both by the pass and off the dribble. Every defender would need to guard the painted area as if their lives depended on it. Related to this would be seeking out opportunities to take charges. Because they are programmed to be super-aggressive offensively, UNC is prone to commit offensive fouls if a defensive team is aware enough to take opportunities.
Finally, I believe for any defense to really work against North Carolina, it has to be finished with an aggressive rebounding presence on the back end. The Tar Heels are averaging more than 14 offensive rebounds per game. Any team that hopes to defeat them cannot give them second chances after their first shot has failed.
So, which team(s) can take down the current #1?
To get an idea of the kind of team that can defeat the Tar Heels, let's again take a look back at that 1995-96 Kentucky team and the teams that gave the Wildcats some issues.
UMass entered their game with Kentucky as the #5 ranked team in the nation. They boasted a big shot-blocking/rebounding center in Marcus Camby; two quick, smart, sharp-shooting guards in Carmelo Travieso and Edgar Padilla; and a smooth wing in Donta Bright. Not particularly deep, they had a great mix of talent and experience, and they could do just about everything my game plan above asks a team today to do against the Tar Heels.
Mississippi State was constructed similarly, with a tremendous rebounding/shot-blocking big in Erick Dampier; a solid, if unheralded, lead guard in Darryl Wilson; and a slashing wing in Dontae Jones. While much more inconsistent than that UMass team, a Mississippi State-like team could do damage against this year's UNC team.
There are a few teams that possess the potential to put a scare into Carolina, but are not quite ready to beat the Heels. A few to consider:
- Wake Forest - A scary-talented front line and decent experience and ability in the backcourt, but just not ready to take down #1.
- Clemson - An interesting mix of players, most of whom are underrated, but lacking a really great guard. Coach Purnell needs Cliff Hammonds back from last season.
- Maryland - Doesn't Gary Williams always put a team on the floor that has a chance in a one-game scenario? With an explosive (if inconsistent) backcourt, it is possible.
- UConn - The Huskies are an interesting group. They possess the talent and experience to do the deed…but is the mentality there? That will be the question if they take on the Heels, and I think it would do them in.
- Georgetown - Rebounding is the Hoyas' bugaboo against a team like UNC. They are obviously talented and the way they play would expose the Tar Heels' gambling defense, but can they rebound enough to win?
So who does have the goods this year? I offer three possibilities. There are, undoubtedly, more than is mentioned here. However, these three teams have both the personnel and the potential to implement a game plan that can defeat North Carolina.
- Duke - Balanced scoring and just enough shooting ability to get beyond the fact that no Blue Devil frontcourt player really belongs on the same court as the Tar Heels. They defend the heck out of the ball, and I would expect them to draw a lot of offensive fouls against UNC. The big questions will be whether they can really control their turnovers against the Heels and if their "rebound-by-committee" approach be good enough.
- Gonzaga - Excluding Jeremy Pargo's meltdown against Connecticut in the final few minutes, he can take care of the ball more than well enough against UNC's defense. The Bulldogs have depth at every position, and a frontcourt that can bring out some of the Tar Heels' flaws. Before the season, they were my pick to be a team that could beat Carolina, and they still rank in that category, though, like Georgetown, they have some questions in the rebounding department.
- Oklahoma - Power player inside that can handle his business? Check (Blake Griffin). Smooth-scoring wing? Check (Willie Warren). Underrated lead guard that doesn't turn the ball over? Check (Austin Johnson). Experienced enough to beat the Heels? Maybe not… but they could. The pieces are there, and the Sooners would really battle UNC on the boards.
Again, this North Carolina team is so good it is possible to start the "undefeated team" talk. However, if someone with the right personnel executes the perfect game plan, they can be had. Just ask Kentucky.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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