No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels (7-1) vs Texas Longhorns (5-3)
Saturday, December 12, 2015 | 4:15 pm CT | TV: ESPN
Were it not for UNC's second half slip up at Northern Iowa three weeks ago, the Longhorns would be welcoming the No. 1 team in the nation to Austin on Saturday afternoon. As is, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels arrive ranked No. 3, winners of four straight since their loss at UNI, including a victory over a Top 10 Maryland squad.
Of course, it's wins in March rather than December that matter most, but this one has the potential to be an important win for the Longhorns, who are looking for their first Top 50 win of the young season. They'll get one more opportunity when UConn visits the Erwin Center in a couple weeks, but if the Tar Heels wind up having the kind of season many think they'll have, a win for Texas would likely mean a win over a No. 1-seeded team on its NCAA Tournament resume. Particularly with wins looking like they'll be tough to come by in a loaded Big 12, today's tilt with the Tar Heels could be a proverbial ticket puncher for Texas come March.
The Tar Heels are a legit Final Four contender, but there are reasons to like the Longhorns' chances. Maybe it was something Rick Barnes did to prepare for games against the flagship university of his home state, but the Longhorns in recent years have not been the slightest bit intimidated by Roy Williams' club. Although the series took a one-year pause last season, the Horns and Heels tussled each season between 2010-14, with Texas besting UNC in four of those five contests, including a pair of wins on the road.
The Longhorns are one of the few teams that boasts as much size as do the Tar Heels, with sufficient length and depth to avoid being overwhelmed by UNC around the rim. Most importantly, the Horns are playing at home, in front of what should be the first real crowd of the season, inside an arena where this group of Longhorns is shooting the ball markedly better and the lighting and depth perception often make for a challenging environment for visiting shooters. UNC may rightly be favored by the oddsmakers, but Texas is capable of an upset in this one.
And how, exactly, might they secure such an upset?
1. If forced to choose between the two, favor defensive rebounding over pressure defense. After a comparatively tepid start to the season, I've been pleased to see Shaka Smart starting to trust his team enough to ramp up the full-court pressure on defense. I think it suits this Texas team quite well in a number of important ways and I expect to see full court pressure in the game's opening minutes.
If it works, terrific, but here's the thing: against this group of Tar Heels, there are good reasons to believe that full court defense proves to be more an opportunity for easy offense than a setback to be overcome. UNC has all the tools they need to handle the pressure, with an elite point guard who is equally experienced and turnover averse; long guards who aren't easy to trap; big men who have excellent hands and can play in the open court; and a coach who thrives in up-and-down, high-possesion contests. In other words, let's hope that Shaka Smart has anticipated this possibility and is prepared to follow an alternate strategy if early results are discouraging.
Basketball strategy is in many ways a balancing act of tradeoffs, and if under other conditions it's worthwhile to sacrifice transition opportunities and offensive rebounding for disruptive full court defense, my instinct is that against this UNC team, the calculus is reversed, favoring sound halfcourt defense and rebounding over full-court pressing. Pressure defense can work when it's a high risk, high reward proposition, but if the opponent sufficiently neutralizes the threat and it instead becomes a high risk, modest reward situation, the payoff won't justify the costs. One of the things I'll be watching with great interest over Shaka's first couple seasons in Austin is how nimble he proves to be in adjusting game plans to fit opportunities presented by a given opponent. Today may make for an interesting test case.
2. Beware UNC's outside shooting ability, and if need be, match it. One of the things that makes this Tar Heel squad particularly potent is its above average capacity to shoot the ball from the outside. Senior point guard Marcus Paige excels both as a shooter (40% from behind the arc) and a distributor (setting up teammates for great looks from the outside). Those teammates include a trio of quality shooters in Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and Nate Britt, all of whom average 20+ minutes per game and are shooting about 40% from three-point range. UNC prefers to work its offense inside-out and doesn't shoot threes at a high volume, but if given opportunities to get off clean shots from beyond the arc, they'll take and make enough of them to punish us pretty painfully.
On the flip side, even if UNC does have a good night shooting the ball from three-point range, at its best this group of Longhorns is plenty dangerous shooting the ball. Especially at home, where everyone -- and particularly the freshmen -- looks exponentially more comfortable. In its three losses versus Washington, A&M, and Michigan, the Longhorns have managed a meager 20 makes on 66 attempts beyond the arc (30%), but have been blistering from the friendly confines of the Erwin Center, where they've knocked down 45 of 112 attempts (40%).
3. Win the battle for foul shots. And then make them. Texas and North Carolina present a "something's gotta give" match up in the battle for foul shots -- as in, Texas has been unstoppable in racking up trips to the line and UNC has been steadfast in defending without sending opponents to the line. Both of those things cannot hold true on Saturday, and a Texas victory likely means winning this particular battle. Particularly if we aren't getting much offense through our defense, our path to victory probably requires us to knock down some threes and rack up trips to the charity stripe. Making more than 60% of those attempts would help, too.
4. Defend Marcus Paige strategically. One potential strategy for dealing with UNC's outstanding point guard would be to try to limit his impact by limiting his opportunities -- aggressively denying him the ball, trapping him when he does have it, and so forth. I suspect that strategy would prove ineffective at best, disastrous at worst. The better strategy, in my view, requires a mature understanding of Marcus Paige's entire matrix of skills and -- here we go again -- navigating a tradeoff calculus. Paige can score buckets in bunches, but he's at his best when he's facilitating offense for UNC as a whole, both by pushing an aggressive transition attack and by breaking down halfcourt defense by getting to its soft middle.
What is the counter to those particular threats? Strategic concessions in (1) space and help defense, to limit Paige's ability to penetrate and dish to teammates for open looks and (2) offensive rebounding, to limit Paige's ability to kill us on run outs in transition. It's a strategy that can lead to Paige scoring a lot of points, but at a price to North Carolina, as it neutralizes their most decisive team strengths. If Paige goes full Kemba and drops 40 on you, you tip your cap. If he scores 25 on 20 shots, with Texas well-positioned to gobble up his misses? I'd wager that ends with a Texas win.
Prediction: This team is starting to find its rhythm, and another game in our friendly home forum has me optimistic that trend is primed to continue. If our strategic planning and in-game adjustments are sound, we manage to knock down a handful of threes, and continue to thrive getting to the line (and not falling apart there), I'm bullish about Shaka Smart picking up his first significant win of his Texas tenure. The Horns continue their recent run of success against the Heels, 81-77.