Five and Five: North Carolina’s Strengths and Weaknesses Against KentuckyPosted by KCarpenter on December 2nd, 2011
The big game is tomorrow, and even if it’s probably not going to be “The Game of the Millenium,” there will be an unbelievable amount of talent on display as two contenders go head-to-head in Lexington. Right now, let’s take a good hard look at North Carolina and outline some strengths and weaknesses. (ed. note: the Kentucky analysis is here)
- North Carolina Matches Up With Kentucky: Kentucky has one of the most freakishly athletic line-ups in the country. They are taller, longer, faster, and stronger than just about any team in the country. In North Carolina, the Wildcats meet a team that won’t feel over-matched on the basis of sheer athletic talent. The dominating performances that Kentucky has had early in the season will be harder to replicate against a very athletic Tar Heel team.
- North Carolina Can Contain Terrence Jones: The two times that Jones has faced North Carolina, he hasn’t been able to dominate games. In fact, he’s struggled against the Tar Heels. Last December, Jones went three of 17 from the field on his way to a nine-point, six-rebound game. In the Elite Eight, he was also quiet with 11 points and seven rebounds, and turned the ball over four times. As talented as the team is, Jones is still Kentucky’s leading scorer and a bad game from him could hurt the Wildcats.
- Depth: So far this year, Kentucky has used a very shallow rotation that leans heavily on the starters while giving plenty of minutes to the experienced Darius Miller and using Kyle Wiltjer in spot minutes. North Carolina, by contrast normally goes eight deep with its standard rotation with spot minutes going to Justin Watts, Desmond Hubert, and Stilman White. With such a talented team, it makes sense that Kentucky’s rotation is pretty shallow, but there are two ways that this can hurt the Wildcats. Against North Carolina’s up-tempo attack, players tend to get tired more quickly, and often need rest. If Kentucky doesn’t pay attention, they may find their best players going into the final minutes with tired legs. Worse, a shallow rotation is vulnerable to foul trouble, something North Carolina excels at creating. Last December, four Kentucky players fouled out against North Carolina, including three starters. John Calipari will have to carefully calibrate the level of physicality he wants his players to bring on defense, or he might find his team in crunch time with his best players out of the game.
- Experience: As a young team, North Carolina doesn’t often get to play the experience card, but against the youth of Kentucky, the Tar Heels seem like grizzled veterans. Starting a senior, two juniors, and two wise-beyond-their-years sophomores in Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall, this UNC team expects to play more cohesively and with better chemistry than their young adversaries who are still trying to learn each other.
- Payback: Kentucky was the team that ended North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament run. After North Carolina’s loss last Saturday, Kentucky supplanted the Tar Heels at the top of the polls. The Wildcats have taken what North Carolina felt belonged to them and that’s a powerful motivation. Beyond team feelings, it seems like Zeller has a personal vendetta against Kentucky. Of course, the wry and stoic big man seems unlikely to get worked up by, well, just about anything, but it was in the Kentucky game during Zeller’s freshmen year that he broke his wrist. Since then, he’s always played well against Kentucky, whether in back-up minutes in 2009, or in a starring role in 2010 and 2011. Last December, Zeller scored a team-high 27 points on 13 shots while collecting 11 rebounds and five blocks. In the losing effort in March, he managed 21 points on 12 shots, nine rebounds, and four blocks.
- North Carolina Matches Up With Kentucky: The double-edged sword of even matchups is that while you are well-suited to guarding your opponent, they are well-suited to guard you. North Carolina, just like Kentucky, has managed to win games because they were simply bigger and had better athletes than their opponents. They won’t have that edge against the NBA-ready lineup that Calipari puts on the floor.
- North Carolina Does Not Make Enough Threes: Did you know that North Carolina is actually shooting 41.1% from beyond the arc so far this season? So far, the team has actually been a very competent perimeter shooting team, but a few factors complicate the situation. As good as North Carolina has been from the perimeter, the team just doesn’t shoot a lot of threes. Their are only five teams in Division I that have attempted a lower proportion of three point shots. Secondly, it looks like P.J. Hairston, the teams leading three-point shooter, both in terms of volume and accuracy, will be sitting this game out with a sore wrist. North Carolina’s natural tendency is to not shoot that many threes combined with Hairston’s absence seems to point to a quiet day from the perimeter for the Tar Heels.
- North Carolina Sometimes Struggles to Defend Threes: Kentucky knows this, because they managed to make 12 three-pointers against the Tar Heels in March, powering the Wildcats past North Carolina in the Elite Eight. North Carolina received a bitter reminder of the team’s difficulty when UNLV hit 13 three-pointers on their way to an upset last weekend. While North Carolina demonstrated excellent perimeter defense on Wednesday, holding the sweet-shooting Wisconsin Badgers to 28.6% from long-range, it may be a challenge to replicate that effort for a second consecutive time.
- North Carolina Turns It Over: Despite an all-round excellent win against Wisconsin, the Tar Heels almost gave the game away with sloppy ball-handling and passing. Wisconsin stayed in a game where they were out-shot and out-defended by turning the ball over only four times compared to North Carolina’s fourteen. While Kentucky isn’t as nearly as careful with the ball as Wisconsin, this is one category where the Wildcats can find an easy statistical edge and extra possessions.
- North Carolina Hasn’t Done Well in Hostile Environments: At the “neutral court” UNLV game, it was easy to see how a loud, partisan crowd can help to throw North Carolina off its game. Last year, North Carolina didn’t lose a single game at the Dean Smith Center. All eight of UNC’s losses came on the road, at neutral courts, “neutral courts” (Greensboro), and in hostile arenas. For whatever reason, this team has not shown the ability to win against tough opponents on the road. Maybe the bright lights and the national attention will spur the Heels into ending a trend, but Rupp Arena is perhaps North Carolina’s biggest obstacle on the path to victory.