Note: This article also appears at CollegeHoopsNet.com.
Game of the Week: #4 North Carolina at #17 Arizona (Saturday, January 27th, 1:00 PM, CBS)
With February soon upon us, it’s almost time for the stretch run in college basketball. We all know what that means—bubble talk, conference title races, key intra-conference match-ups, and NCAA Tournament discussion. Aside from the top teams in the big conferences facing off, there is always a quality contest between two teams trying to keep pace in the at-large hunt. There is no shortage of games like that this weekend, including Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, Kentucky vs. Tennessee, Boston College heading to Duke, Michigan going to Indiana, and a host of Big East contests. However, the best game of the week is one that doesn’t involve conference play or standings positioning. It is one of the best non-conference games all year, North Carolina at Arizona. Two of the best offenses in the country will square off in what will likely be a game in the 90s. Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be one of the fastest games you will see all season.
North Carolina is the deepest and possibly the most talented team in the country, which has helped in leading the Tar Heels to a top-five ranking and a favorite for a #1 seed come March. They are explosive on the offensive end, and have improved their defense drastically over the past few weeks. Ranked #2 in the RPI, the 17-2 (4-1 in the ACC) Tar Heels have been near the top of the rankings all season long. They opened the season with three victories, most notably over Winthrop, but lost their next one to Gonzaga in New York City. UNC bounced back to string together 12 consecutive wins, including victories over Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, and Florida State. After their disappointing loss at Virginia Tech two weeks ago, the Tar Heels have dominated their competition recently, winning at Clemson and over Georgia Tech by a combined 38 points. UNC is only 1-2 in true road games this season, which could mean trouble on Saturday. The Tar Heels average almost 88 points per game, best in the ACC and 2nd in the country. They allow just under 66 a contest. According to Ken Pomeroy, North Carolina has the 4th-most efficient offense and the 2nd-most efficient defense.
Arizona has arguably the best starting five in the country on the offensive end, and that talent has translated into a very good (albeit inconsistent) season thus far. However, they really struggle on the defensive end at times, which will need to improve if they are to make a deep run in March. Ranked #3 in the RPI, the 13-5 (4-4 in the Pac-10) Wildcats opened the season with a tough loss at Virginia, but then ran off 12 straight victories, including victories over UNLV, Illinois, Washington, and Memphis. However, they have lost four of five since then, including three straight contests. The Wildcats have struggled on the road so far this season (4-4), and are 7th in the conference standings. They average over 84 points per game, good enough for the nation’s #7 scoring offense—and best in the Pac-10. On the other hand, they give up over 74 a contest, which is next-to-last in the conference. Ken Pomeroy has the Wildcats as the most efficient offensive team in the country, but the 80th -most efficient defensive team.
North Carolina Team Breakdown
After last season’s success, in which the Tar Heels surprised everyone by replacing four lottery picks and receiving a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina is even better this year. They are terrific on the offensive end, nearly unstoppable in an up-tempo game, and also very efficient in the half-court. The Tar Heels are ridiculously deep, with ten guys averaging at least 12 minutes per game, and another two getting at least seven a contest. Defensively, they have improved greatly since the start of the season, and have held 12 of their last 13 opponents to below 70 points. They have athletes and talent up and down their roster, meaning they don’t see a lot of mismatches on the defensive end. They might be the most complete team in the country.
North Carolina’s frontcourt is one of the best in the country, and the Tar Heels revolve around their trio up front. It all starts with Tyler Hansbrough. My preseason pick for National Player of the Year, Hansbrough is a beast on the interior. He is absolutely relentless around the basket, and never stops working when he is on the floor. He is very efficient shooting the ball and is a dominant scorer and rebounder. With more help inside this season, Hansbrough has had an even better season but has received less recognition due to his outstanding supporting cast. Brandan Wright has been one of the best freshmen in the country, and looks like a sure-fire lottery pick. He is extremely long and athletic, and is an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder. Wright is very efficient scoring the ball inside due to his finishing ability and variety of post moves. Additionally, Wright is outstanding at running the floor and getting points in transition. He had scored in double-digits in every game this season prior to a nine-point showing against Georgia Tech this weekend. Reyshawn Terry is vastly underrated on a national level, even though his numbers have gone down since last season. He is very smooth on the offensive end, and has the ability to shoot from long-range as well as drive along the baseline for baskets. Terry has been wildly inconsistent this year, however. He has scored in double-figures in only two of his last nine games—after averaging almost 14 a game over the previous four contests. He still is one of the best shooters in the conference, and is also a very good defender. Leading the way off the bench are wings Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green. Both are swingmen, with the ability to play both shooting guard and small forward. Ginyard is a lock-down defender who is very athletic and can really shut down the opposing team’s best scorer. He is also very long, which helps him rack up steals and rebounds. Green is a better offensive player, but he also is a very good defender. He can shoot the three with efficiency, and is one of the best free-throw shooters in the ACC. Green can do a little bit of everything on the court. Inside, Deon Thompson gets the majority of the bench minutes. He is a physical player who has shown the ability to get points and rebounds. Alex Stepheson also sees playing time.
The backcourt for the Tar Heels is also extremely deep and talented. Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington form one of the best freshmen backcourt duos in the country. Lawson is an extremely quick, explosive point guard who has improved in many ways since the start of the season. He loves to push the ball in the open court so he can use his speed and vision to get easy assists. Lawson is a good defender who can disrupt an opponent’s offense with his ball pressure. He does not turn the ball over much, and is a big-time playmaker. Ellington is a shooter, plain and simple. He has one of the nicest strokes in college basketball this season, which has helped him shoot over 40% from beyond the arc. However, in his last five games, he has hit only 6 of 23 three-point attempts (26%). However, he is also a solid rebounder and passer who can really fill it up if he gets hot from outside. He is third on the team in scoring, and has scored in double-figures thirteen times this season. Ginyard and Green can swing to the backcourt off the bench to provide defense and size. Bobby Frasor and Quentin Thomas help out at the point guard spot. Frasor started last season for Roy Williams, and provides a steady influence at that position. However, he has been hobbled much of the season by an injury, which has forced Thomas to get more minutes. Thomas is extremely quick who can penetrate into the lane and get assists. He sometimes tries to do too much, leading to a turnover. Wes Miller is a very good three-point shooter who has seen his minutes and three-point percentage drop drastically this season.
Arizona Team Breakdown
Arizona has been one of the best teams in college basketball at times this season, even after a disappointing season last year in which they backed into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round to Villanova. Moreover, the Wildcats also lost NBA Draft Pick Hassan Adams, but still have played much better than last season. They have one of the best and most balanced (four guys with at least 14.5 points per game, and another averaging 11.6) offenses in the country, and love to get out and push the ball to get points. The Wildcats don’t press on the defensive end, but have the best running game in the country. No team will beat Arizona if it is a high-scoring contest.
The frontcourt of Arizona is one of the most talented and versatile in the country. Senior Ivan Radenovic, sophomore Marcus Williams, and freshman Chase Budinger form an excellent trio capable of matching up with most frontcourts and creating mismatches all over the floor. Radenovic has had a breakout season so far this year, leading the team in rebounding while also placing second in points and assists. He is a very good inside-outside scorer who can shoot the ball with efficiency and also bang on the interior. He is one of the most difficult match-ups in the Pac-10 due to his versatility. Radenovic is also one of the best 6-10 free-throw shooters you will find, hitting his shots at a 90% clip from the line. Williams had a great finish to last season, and has carried that over to this year. He is an outstanding inside-outside player who is one of the best scorers in the conference. His three-point shooting has gone down from last season, but he is better inside the arc this year. He is also a good defender. Williams is averaging almost 22 points per game in Pac-10 play, and is shooting 55% from the field during that span. He has been somewhat inconsistent at times this season, but is definitely hitting his stride when it counts. Budinger has been one of the major impact freshmen this season in college basketball. He has scored double-figure points in every game except three so far—but two of them were in Pac-10 play, which could mean he might be hitting a wall. He is averaging only 10.4 points over his last five games. However, he has shown the ability to score in a variety of ways and is exciting to watch. He is also a solid rebounder and an excellent passer. The supremely athletic Budinger was called the most talented recruit to ever play at Arizona by Lute Olson. Jordan Hill and Brett Brielmaier provide depth off the bench, but play less than ten minutes per game.
Arizona’s backcourt is also one of the best in the country, and is much improved over last season. The key to it all has been the play of point guard Mustafa Shakur. After not living up to his high school hype during his first three years at Arizona, Shakur has been one of the best point guards in the country this season, ranking third in the nation in assists at just under 8 per game while also putting up over 14 points per game. Shakur is a very capable three-point shooter and a good defender who is at his best when leading the fast break for the Wildcats. His ability to take care of the ball and find open teammates has been the main reason for the great start of Arizona. His backcourt partner is Jawann McClellan. The 6-5 junior was primed for a big season after playing in only two games last season due to injury. He has enormous potential and is very athletic. Moreover, McClellan is an excellent three-point shooter and has already made more threes this year than he did during his entire freshman season. His defense and rebounding are also solid. However, he is 0 for 15 from long-range in his last five games, and is averaging only 7.2 points per game in that span. Like the frontcourt, the backcourt for the Wildcats lacks quality depth. Freshman Nic Wise provides a couple of minutes of rest for Shakur at the point, while Daniel Dillon is a very good defender who can lockdown opponents off the bench.
If you like lots of scoring, this is the game for you. If you like up-tempo basketball with back and forth offense, this is the game for you. If you don’t, and just like to see two Final Four contenders go at it—and who doesn’t?—this is also the game for you. In other words, don’t miss this one. Both teams love to get up and down the floor to get points in transition, and would rather have the game in the 80s and 90s than the 60s. Luckily for them, I don’t see either team attempting to slow the game down. There are several outstanding match-ups all over the court. The frontcourt battles will be outstanding, especially between Brandan Wright and Marcus Williams, and Tyler Hansbrough and Ivan Radenovic. The quickness at point guard of Mustafa Shakur and Tywon Lawson will be a thing of beauty, as well.
If Arizona is going to knock off the Tar Heels, they will need to do several things. Obviously, they are going to need to play some sort of defense. They were better against UCLA this past weekend, but the Wildcats still struggle immensely on that side of the ball. They are awful in the man-to-man, but have a decent zone that they have used several times in recent games. However, their athleticism and quickness could be key against North Carolina’s up-tempo offense. UNC would rather push the ball in transition, which could play into Arizona’s hands. If the Wildcats don’t have to lock down defensively in the half-court, they have an advantage right away. Offensively, they are going to need to take advantage of their mismatches. Ivan Radenovic is too quick for Tyler Hansbrough, and could take him outside to open up the lane for the other Wildcats. Moreover, if Marcus Williams and Chase Budinger can get Brandan Wright away from the paint defensively, UNC will really struggle to stop dribble penetration. Virginia Tech killed North Carolina with penetration and transition points, which is exactly what Arizona likes to do. Defensively, Radenovic and Williams will need to stop Hansbrough and Wright. Neither is especially adept on that side of the ball, which could mean a long day with the dominating big man of the Tar Heels. Moreover, Shakur can’t allow Lawson to beat him back in transition for easy baskets.
For North Carolina to win on the road, they will have to stop Arizona’s outstanding offense. The Tar Heels play better defense than the Wildcats, but that won’t mean too much in a game that is guaranteed to have at least 170 points combined between the two teams. However, once Arizona gets into a half-court setting, North Carolina should be able to get key stops late in the game. Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green, and Reyshawn Terry are athletic wing players who are exactly the type of players needed to slow down Arizona’s outstanding perimeter guys. Moreover, Lawson is quick and a pest on the defensive end, which could disrupt Shakur and the Wildcats offense. Wright’s shot-blocking will be big as well. UNC really locked down in the second half against Clemson and Georgia Tech, and will need to do the same here. Offensively, their main mission will be to get the ball to Hansbrough and Wright. Arizona simply won’t be able to stop them. Hansbrough is way too strong for Radenovic, and could dominate the paint for the Tar Heels. Wright is very long and athletic, which could spell trouble for Williams or Budinger. Moreover, the Tar Heels need to try to wear out Arizona. UNC goes 10-12 deep every night, while each of Arizona’s starters average over 30 minutes per game. If the Wildcats have foul trouble, that will be huge for UNC. In the end, despite North Carolina’s seemingly huge advantage inside and on the bench, Arizona’s home-court advantage and scoring balance will be too much for North Carolina to handle. Plus, the Wildcats absolutely need this win. I have to give the edge to a desperate team at home.
Prediction: Arizona 93, North Carolina 89
Prediction Record: 6-2
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