Texas faces by far their stiffest of the season on Saturday when they travel to Jerryworld to battle North Carolina on the hardwood (1:00 CT, ESPN). I asked Carolina March to help prep us on the Tar Heels. Our Q&A is below.
We'll get to the game momentarily, but first: In 2007-08, had no one defected early to the NBA, Texas could have sent out the following starting line up:
PG: DJ Augustin (Sophomore)
SG: Daniel Gibson (Senior)
G/F: Kevin Durant (Sophomore)
F: PJ Tucker (Senior)
C: LaMarcus Aldridge (Senior)
I'm certain early attrition has prevented North Carolina from fielding an equally jaw-dropping line up. Give us the Tar Heels' equivalent (from the last 10 years or so), and give us your take on the match up with our Dream Team.
Carolina March: One of the keys to UNC's success the past couple of year's is that they've kept players for three to four years, so the ideal, nobody-defects teams aren't that much different from what you actually saw on the court. So yeah, a 2006 team that kept the core of the previous year's national championship squad (Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams) and added Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard would be pretty awesome. As would the 2007 and 2008 squads, which would take Hansbrough, Green, Ginyard and Williams and add Brandan Wright, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington. If nobody graduates, there's a solid three years where UNC fields a team with six or more NBA players.
But Carolina fans have also lived through seasons like 1993-1994, where a championship team returned everybody but George Lynch and then added freshmen Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Jeff McInnis, only to have the team deliver the earliest NCAA tournament exit in fifteen-plus years. So I'll take what we got, two national championships in five years and a host of good performances in between.
UNC has played three Top 40 teams already, defeating Ohio State (77-73) and Michigan State (89-82), while dropping a pair to Syracuse (87-71) and Kentucky (68-66). The Longhorns, meanwhile, haven't even played a Top 50 team yet. Two related questions, then: First, it has appeared to me that UNC has been improving along the way -- is that fair to say? And second, do you expect the tougher competition (and improvement along the way) to be a meaningful advantage for UNC?
Carolina March: The team has definitely improved, and I do think the level of competition has played a big part in that. With a team as young as this one – at least five freshman get significant playing time – I don't think sheltering them for the first half of the season with a diet of cupcakes would have been very helpful. How it will help them over the entire season is debatable; it may only gain them a couple of early wins in the ACC as they're more up to speed, or it may have no effect whatsoever. Even if it's the latter, I'd still prefer this type of scheduling, as games against Kentucky and Texas are much more fun to watch as a fan than having the team be undefeated and higher ranked at the end of December.How this scheduling will help against Texas is less clear. I'd like to think that the Longhorns inexperience coupled with Carolina's scheduling gives them a great opportunity to come out strong, put Texas on their heels and watch them self-destruct as they've failed to encounter serious competition so far this season. But I thought the same thing about Kentucky, and they handled an early UNC barrage without batting an eye, and went on to win. Rick Barnes seems pretty good at keeping his players focused.
How good is Ed Davis? Like, does his badassage make you snicker a little when you think about other teams not having Ed Davis? And most importantly, is he as Sexy as Dexter Pittman? Thoughts on this match up? Does he have the strength at 225 to deal with Big Sexy?
Carolina March: First of all, please never use the words "Big" and "Sexy" in conjunction in an e-mail to me again. [No deal. --ed] Now, the baddassage of Ed Davis has for the most part been hidden under a bushel this season. He's played well, but there's an expectation that he'll completely take over a game, and so far that hasn't been the case. Some of that's due to the fact that the current system makes it difficult to put everything in the hands of one big man, and there's also the fact that in following Tyler Hansborough, the fans' expectations may be a little to high for any sophomore to live up to. Either way, it feels like he's on the cusp of truly destroying a big-name opponent, and everyone's on the edge of their seats waiting for that to happen, rather than just enjoying the moment.The interesting thing about matching up with Pittman is that it probably won't be Ed Davis on him most of the time. Deon Thompson is the bigger body, and there's a string of players 6'10" and taller coming off the bench, all with different strengths. I'd expect the Heels to keep throwing different bodies at Pittman on both ends of the court to keep him off guard and hopefully push him into foul trouble early.
We know that UNC plays fast, but at the moment it seems to be coming at the expense of a pretty poor turnover rate. Tell us about UNC's tempo and style of play, and the turnovers issue?
Carolina March: Rapid play has always lead to more turnovers, and it's a trade-off for the most part that Roy Willams has been willing to expect. An errant pass on a fast break is no worse than failing to get an offensive rebound on a set play, and as long as it doesn't lead to fast break in the opposite direction, there's little harm done. That being said, UNC has given up more steals than I would like, which was particularly deadly against Syracuse and Kentucky. They're a young team still working out some kinks, but a good defensive team can take advantage of that pretty easily.
There's no question that the Tar Heels have more than enough speed and athleticism to play with Texas, but I wonder about whether they're prepared for Texas' exceptionally physical style of play. We're not talking Big East Brute-icism here, but the Longhorns don't mind banging and play intense, physical defense. Does UNC neutralize that with their speed? How did you think they fared against a similarly physical and defensive-minded Kentucky squad?
Carolina March: I don't think the speed really does neutralize anything, especially since Carolina likes to run off of defensive rebounds. If Texs beats them up enough inside that they can't get those rebounds, the Heels are in trouble. What you may be underestimating is the sheer number of players Carolina can rotate into the post. They've got six players who can legitimately play center (Thompson, Davis, Zeller, Henson, and the two Wear brothers) and although many of them are young and not all that muscular - Henson in particular could use a couple hundred sandwiches - their height and fresh legs could draw the Texas big men into serious foul trouble. Don't forget, Rick Barnes once had to finish a game against UNC with only four players on the court the foul situation was so dire.
[You're absolutely right that I underestimated the Tar Heels size (and by a lot), although equally to blame was writing questions for UNC and MSU at the same time, during which I completely mixed up the size of UNC. In any case, it makes all the difference in the world for how UNC can, and perhaps should, play Texas. --ed]
Give us four signs -- two positive, two negative -- that, upon seeing them develop in the game, will make you cackle with delight / cringe in fear about the outcome.
Carolina March: Early frustration on the faces of Texas players will be the most promising sign, whether by denying them rebounds, dragging them into foul trouble early, or just altering shots with height the Longhorns aren't used to seeing. Couple that with good outside shooting early to prevent Texas from collapsing on the inside on defense, and I'll be thrilled right off the bat. On the other hand, if UNC can't get the ball inside without putting in the opposing teams' hands, I'll begin to cringe. And if they go into full-out panic mode, with rushed shots, poor ball movement, and the stretches of play that killed them against Syracuse and Kentucky, well, I'll be hiding my head under a pillow by the second half.