Friday, April 4, 2008

North Carolina vs. Kansas Preview

For a complete preview of the Final Four, click here.

North Carolina. Kansas. Could we get any more storylines in this game? Two of the greatest programs in college basketball squaring off for the right to get to the title game; combined, these two teams have an unbelievable 30 Final Four appearances. If that wasn’t enough, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was the former coach at Kansas before returning home to the Tar Heels. Williams got over the hump by winning the national title that he couldn’t win with Kansas three seasons ago with UNC, while Kansas coach Bill Self also passed his biggest test by finally getting to the Final Four in his fifth season with the Jayhawks. It should an outstanding game.

North Carolina's Road to the Final Four

North Carolina, the overall No.1 seed in the entire NCAA Tournament, has been on a tear so far in the Big Dance, annihilating any team in its path. The Tar Heels opened the Tournament with an easy win over Mount St. Mary’s, although the game was close for some of the first half. In the second round, UNC jumped out to a 25-point halftime lead against Arkansas and never looked back. The Tar Heels scored over 100 points for the second consecutive game. Against Washington State in the Sweet Sixteen, they didn’t reach triple-digits again, but they overcame an early deficit to go on a big run in the first-half en route to a 21-point victory. The Tar Heels faced the toughest game in the Elite Eight, as they got off to a good start against Louisville before the Cardinals tied it in the second half. Tyler Hansbrough was too much, though, and UNC survived.

Kansas' Road to the Final Four

Kansas has not been the most dominant one seed thus far in the NCAA Tournament, but it has won each game by double-digits and has demonstrated why it deserved a top-seed. The Jayhawks opened the Tournament with an easy win over the champions from the Big Sky, Portland State. Against UNLV in the second round, it was a relatively close game for most of the contest, but Kansas pulled away down the stretch for a 19-point victory. The Sweet Sixteen brought a No. 12 seed in Villanova. This time, Kansas jumped out to an early lead in the first half and never looked back en route to a 15-point win. The Elite Eight brought Cinderella team Davidson, and the Wildcats nearly knocked off Kansas. A back-and-forth game was not decided until Jason Richards’ last-second three was off the mark. KU won by two.

North Carolina Team Breakdown

North Carolina came into the season as one of the favorites for the national title and did nothing to dissuade that for most of season. The Tar Heels lost just two games, to Maryland and Duke, both in Chapel Hill. North Carolina is led by Player of the Year co-favorite Tyler Hansbrough, who has carried the Tar Heels at times this season. He is relentless inside and can simply overpower and outwork for points and rebounds. In the backcourt, Ty Lawson is back and healthy. He is extremely quick with the ball and gets UNC’s offense going. Wayne Ellington is an outstanding shooter who can get hot from outside and the mid-range. Marcus Ginyard is a lockdown defender, while Danny Green is the ultimate role player and sixth man. Deon Thompson has shown flashes of his potential inside, while Alex Stepheson provides depth. Quentin Thomas has proven he can handle the point guard position if necessary.

Kansas Team Breakdown

Kansas is certainly one of the most complete and talented teams in the country, with future pros up and down the roster. The Jayhawks have great inside-outside balance and are also one of the best defensive teams in the country. It all starts on the perimeter, where Kansas has one of the deepest guard groups in the nation. Brandon Rush is the team’s best scorer and shooter, but he tends to defer to his teammates too often and needs to become more aggressive offensively. Mario Chalmers is an excellent player at both ends of the floor, while Russell Robinson is a lockdown defender and a leader. Sherron Collins, who comes off the bench, is the most explosive and dynamic of them all. Up front, Darrell Arthur is a future first-round pick who is tough to guard, while Darnell Jackson is a banger down low who can score and rebound. Sasha Kaun does the dirty work off the bench, and Cole Aldrich also sees minutes up front.

Match-up Analysis

If you’re not excited about watching this game, I’m not sure what is wrong with you. This might be the best game to watch of the year. Both teams like getting up and down the court, forcing turnovers with their defenses and getting easy baskets in transition. Both teams have plenty of weapons, both inside and out, and each team is experienced and hungry to get to the national title game. Can Bill Self get to the Championship game in his first Final Four? Or will Roy Williams get a chance to win his second title in four years after not winning one at Kansas?

Although both teams would rather play a full-court game rather than a slow, half-court game, will it end up being that way? North Carolina will run no matter what, but Kansas might be better suited to play a half-court game. The Jayhawks can score in the half-court due to their multiple options, and their defense is far superior to North Carolina’s. Forcing UNC out of the transition game could be their key to victory. Look for the tempo of this game to be a factor. If North Carolina is going to move on to the championship, the Tar Heels are going to need a big game from Tyler Hansbrough. He had a monster game against Louisville in the Elite Eight, and could be in store for another productive game inside. He has an edge on whoever will be guarding him down low on Kansas. Furthermore, North Carolina’s perimeter players have to hit their shots. When Wayne Ellington and Danny Green are not knocking down jumpers, the North Carolina offense is much easier to defend (relatively speaking). Defensively, the Tar Heels need to be sure to not allow Kansas’ guards to get hot. Marcus Ginyard can shut down Brandon Rush, but Sherron Collins and Mario Chalmers are explosive players who could have big games against the questionable Tar Heels’ defense.

As for Kansas, the Jayhawks will need to stop North Carolina’s transition basketball. As mentioned above, they don’t want to run with the Tar Heels despite their ability to execute efficiently on the fast-break. Getting North Carolina into a half-court game would be more suitable for Kansas than it would for the Tar Heels. Also defensively, Kansas needs to rebound the ball well. Davidson got plenty of second chances in the Elite Eight, and the Jayhawks have struggled at times this year grabbing boards. With Hansbrough down low, Kansas has to be sure to limit multiple opportunities for him and the rest of the Tar Heels. Moreover, Russell Robinson could play a big role defending Ty Lawson. He is an outstanding defender, and could be able to keep Lawson out of the lane on key possessions. That will be an important match-up. Chalmers and Rush need to prevent Ellington and Green from getting open looks. Offensively, Kansas needs to get inside production. Darrell Arthur is going to be a match-up problem for either Hansbrough or Deon Thompson, and he needs to put forth a good effort. Darnell Jackson could also be a factor. Furthermore, Kansas needs to find a go-to-guy late in the game. Against Davidson, it didn’t seem like the Jayhawks knew what they wanted to do with the ball. Collins, Chalmers and Rush can all score consistently, but one of them will need to step up and get baskets if necessary.

Down the stretch, I think Kansas’ defense and the Jayhawks’ ability to play at multiple tempos will be the difference. They should be able to force North Carolina into a half-court game when it matters, and the individual defensive abilities of Robinson, Chalmers and Rush will be a huge factor. Look for the x-factor to be Collins offensively. He has the strength and quickness to get key baskets. In what will be one of the most exciting games of the season, Kansas will prevail.

Prediction: Kansas 79, North Carolina 76

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