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Texas Basketball: North Carolina Preview

The Texas Longhorns and North Carolina Tar Heels play on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. CT at the Greensboro Coliseum. The game will be broadcast on national television on CBS.

Texas beat Illinois. Illinois beat North Carolina. Tell me again why we have to play this game?

Let's start with the good news: Texas has played three quality opponents, all three with good size, and played well twice. The bad news? The Tar Heels present many of the same challenges that the opponent who we played poorly against (USC) did. And they're better than USC.

North Carolina is big. Very, very big -- bigger than the big USC team that muscled us around in Los Angeles. In the paint they feature John Henson (6-10, 210), Tyler Zeller (7-0, 250), and Justin Knox (6-9, 240). Their swingmen are Harrison Barnes (6-8, 210) and Reggie Bullock (6-7, 190), and their top guards are Dexter Strickland (6-3, 180), Leslie McDonald (6-4, 215), Larry Drew (6-2, 180), and Kendall Marshall (6-3, 186).

Of course, Illinois was big, too, and we handled them well enough, but to say I'm concerned about their size is an understatement. After the jump, we'll dig into some keys to the game.

1. Don't be afraid to play zone defense.  After the Lamar game, Rick mentioned in passing that he wanted to start playing some zone, but we haven't seen it in the two games since, and I wonder whether he's saved it to debut against the Tar Heels. It wouldn't be a bad idea. For starters, we just don't have the personnel to deal with their twin towers inside, and we could easily struggle with Henson and Zeller as much as we did USC's Vucevic. Second, the Tar Heels are not a great three point shooting team, and don't really want to be; they're connecting on just 34% of their attempts and only scoring 19% of their points from beyond the arc, the lowest percentage in the country. Third, despite their size North Carolina is not a great offensive rebounding team, which mitigates some of the concern with playing zone. And fourth, as we've seen with Texas, executing good zone offense is difficult and takes a lot of work. It'd be a great wrinkle to throw at UNC, who haven't been playing many zone teams, don't shoot that well to begin with, and will be playing away from their home floor (Saturday's game is at the Greensboro Coliseum).

2. Push the ball hard off missed shots.  We struggled in the half court against USC and we may well again on Saturday, given the match ups. Our best offense against North Carolina is going to be in transition, which both benefits us and neutralizes their bigs, who clean up the paint awfully well. Most of all, this Texas squad is a very good one in transition. Thompson can run all day. Joseph is a deadly perimeter threat who can score from the three and finish a secondary break. Dogus' is a solid distributor, can finish at the rim, and struggles in the half court. And J'Covan is a fantastic open court player when he plays under control. Bottom line: UNC isn't uncomfortable playing an up tempo game, but for our own purposes we need to get out there and push it. I know Rick agrees, so hopefully our guys will be firing out fast from the get-go.

3. Shoot the three.  I don't want to complain that Texas opened the year trying its damndest to run real offense, move the ball, etc. It's been a good thing, and we're better for it. With that said, we opened the year pretty hesitant to shoot the three pointer -- a bit to our detriment, I think. First of all, there are good shooters on this team, and though guys like Brown and Joseph opened the year ice cold, they're settled in nicely now and are shooting the ball extremely well. Moreover, we need those shots to stretch defenses. It gives guys like Hamilton and Johnson room to work in and around the rim, and frees up opportunities for Thompson to get the ball without being blanketed by sagging defenders. One of the hardest skills for players to learn is what is and isn't a good shot. Last year, Hamilton had no clue. This year, he's much improved, but he's at times swung too far the other way, as has our entire team. I've heard Rick talk about this as well, so I know this isn't a blind spot and I've been pleased with the improvement we're seeing. We need to keep shooting it from downtown when the opportunities are there. (Nothing in the above applies to Jai Lucas, who looks like he's shooting a heavier ball -- short on every single three -- and is now shooting a miserable 3-20 from beyond the arc. His 86.3 Offensive Rating is the lowest on the team by far.)

4. Run screen and rolls with Joseph and Johnson.  I don't know that this is a key to the game, but I did want to mention in the preview that I'm looking to see more two-man game between Joseph and Johnson, who make an interesting pair because of both players' ability to shoot. If the Tar Heels go underneath on the screen, Joseph can shoot the three, and if they play over the top, or hedge too far, Gary can roll to a spot and have a wide open 15 footer, which he's been nailing. We can run this with Thompson, as well, and the most appropriate guy to pair with Joseph depends in part on who's being guarded by whom.

5. Get 15-20 good minutes from Matt Hill.  Matt Hill is a really useful big man in a game like this one, and he's been playing much more solidly than you may have noticed this year. He's doing lots of little things that don't necessarily stand out, but provide value that we don't get from many players on the roster. We need less from Hill if Wangmene plays big, and plays well, but I'm skeptical about getting that Saturday against these Tar Heels. Hill isn't a zero on offense, and could be better than he's playing. When he takes it strong he's getting results, either picking up buckets or getting to the line (61.5 FTRate, second on the team behind Thompson, whose 102.9 is 10th in the nation; if only he could make them).

All told, this is an itneresting match up and great challenge for Texas. We've played well against two teams with size (Pitt and Illinois), and poorly against the one that was most physical with us. Our chances against UNC probably hinge somewhat on how aggressive the Tar Heels are in using their size (not all big teams play big/physical; see Pitt) and on how successful we are in countering it with good transition play and team defense (again, I'd love to see a zone). I could see Texas beating North Carolina much in the same way that the smaller Volunteers recently handed Pitt their first loss of the year.

The Tar Heels will be in front of a huge, partisan crowd, and if they get going, they'll feed off the energy and I could see us getting rolled. If we avoid scoring droughts and get UNC settling for jump shots, I like our chances to play a tight game.

Prediction: UNC 74  Texas 70