Friday, April 3, 2009

North Carolina vs. Villanova Preview

A program with multiple national championships and numerous Final Four appearances is back here again, facing off against a program with dreams of repeating its storied 1985 run to the national title. North Carolina is in the Final Four for the second consecutive season, hoping not to repeat its poor performance against Kansas last year. The Tar Heels came into the season as the most talented team in the country, and despite a few bumps in the road along the way, they are right where they expected to be in early April. Villanova has been one of the most impressive teams throughout the NCAA Tournament, bouncing back from a couple of slip-ups late in the year to dominate its opposition in the Big Dance -- as well as playing in the best game of the tournament so far, against Pittsburgh.

North Carolina has the talent advantage across the board, but the Tar Heels do have some weaknesses that they need to shore up if they want to defeat the upstart Wildcats. First, one of UNC's problems all season has been its inability to contain opposing point guards that can get into the lane and score. Unfortunately for them, Villanova is filled with them. Corey Fisher is one of the best penetrators left in the Tournament, and Scottie Reynolds can drive past most defenders. Ty Lawson will have to play lock-down defense on his man, while Wayne Ellington will also have to be sure to keep Reynolds or Reggie Redding on the perimeter. Dante Cunningham will be a match-up problem for whoever North Carolina assigns to him. Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson are more comfortable defending around the basket. The Tar Heels will need to contain Cunningham, both in the post and when he steps out for jumpers. Offensively, North Carolina has to push the pace and try to get the ball inside as much as possible. DeJuan Blair did not get the ball enough in the Elite Eight against 'Nova, but when he did, he was effective. Hansbrough, Thompson and Ed Davis need to take advantage of that.

For Villanova, the Wildcats have to continue doing what they have been doing to get here: attack, attack, attack. They have the quickness advantage on the perimeter, and will be able to get into the lane at will against the sometimes suspect defense of Lawson, Ellington and co. Reynolds has to get going early; when he struggles shooting the ball from the perimeter, the entire offense slows down. When he is hitting his shots, it opens up the lane for him and Fisher to drive, and then Cunningham can do his thing down low. It also opens up the three-point arc for marksman Corey Stokes to knock down triples. Defensively, there is obviously one key element to beating North Carolina: containing Ty Lawson. Reynolds and Fisher are solid but undersized guards who could struggle to keep up with the quickness and strength of Lawson. Redding might be the best bet to stop Lawson, but he might have to stick Ellington or Danny Green because of his size. Inside, Shane Clark and Cunningham have done an admirable job defending the post, but UNC's trio of post players is an entirely different animal. They will need to keep Hansbrough under wraps, and also not allow Thompson or Davis to crash the offensive boards and get easy baskets.

This is going to be a fast-paced, high-scoring affair from the outset. Both teams love to push the tempo and get scoring opportunities in transition. For Villanova, that is what has worked all season. Unfortunately, North Carolina is the best in the country when it comes to transition basketball. Lawson is nearly impossible to stop in the open court, and Ellington and Green are excellent at filling the lanes and knocking down rhythm three-pointers. Unless Villanova gets hot from the three-point arc, it looks like UNC will be headed to the national championship game.

Prediction: North Carolina 83, Villanova 75

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