Previewing Texas vs. North CarolinaPosted by Taylor Erickson & Lathan Wells on December 18th, 2013
(Ed. note: news released on Wednesday afternoon that UNC’s Leslie McDonald has been cleared to play as soon as tonight’s game. This post was written prior to that release.)
On Wednesday night, Texas will head to the Dean Dome for a showdown with what suddenly looks like one of the better teams in the nation in North Carolina. North Carolina has had its struggles early this season with losses to UAB and Belmont, but has righted the ship with perhaps the best collection of wins in the country after knocking off Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky – the top three teams in the preseason AP rankings. Texas has opened the season with a 9-1 record itself, but has yet to see the type of talent that the Tar Heels will roll out. ACC correspondent Lathan Wells and the Big 12′s Taylor Erickson decided to discuss some key topics heading into the contest in the hopes of providing some insights to watch for as the game plays out.
Taylor: So I have to start with the obvious question: North Carolina has three of the best wins in non-conference play, but also has puzzling losses to UAB and Belmont. Which Tar Heels team are we going to see on Wednesday night?
Lathan: Prior to the Kentucky game, that would continue to be the prevailing question. But after their third marquee non-conference win of the season, it appears that UNC is starting to find some consistency. The players appear to be more comfortable in their roles. The fact that Texas has taken four of the last five since Roy Williams took over in Chapel Hill may be motivation enough. Speaking of adapting to roles, how has Texas been able to have such a solid start with a team that entered the season in the midst of major transition?
Taylor: The 9-1 start for Texas has certainly been refreshing to Longhorns fans, but when dissecting the schedule in more detail, it becomes apparent that most of those wins have come against clearly inferior teams. According to CBSSports.com, Texas’ strength of schedule to this point ranks 100th in the nation, 91 spots behind what North Carolina (ninth) has faced. If Rick Barnes’ squad is truly improved, it will have a chance to prove it with tonight’s game followed by one against Michigan State in a span of three days this week. That said, Texas has gotten solid contributions from big man Cameron Ridley, who went for 22 points and 10 rebounds in his last outing. After the way North Carolina handled the talented front line of Kentucky, is there any reason to believe the Heels will struggle to do the same with the Longhorns’ frontcourt?
Lathan: If recent performances are any indication, the short answer is no. Texas’ rebounding numbers are definitely impressive through 10 games (11th in the nation in rebounds per game), but as you mentioned the Horns haven’t dealt with many high-profile opponents with big front lines. UNC’s strength coming into the year was its depth and size in the frontcourt, and they’ve done very well in the rebounding department against big teams. Effort is what plagued them in their early losses, but they seem to have now corrected that problem. Speaking of UNC’s depth in the paint, with all of turnover on the Longhorns’ roster, can Texas confidently run enough players at the Tar Heels if the game is played at UNC’s preferred up-tempo pace?
Taylor: Texas runs about four-deep down low in Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert, and Prince Ibeh, but it’s no secret that at 285 pounds, Ridley could wear down at North Carolina’s pace. While neither Holmes nor Lammert are considered deadly threats from deep, both have shown the ability to step outside and knock down a few shots from behind the arc. I would imagine James Michael McAdoo‘s versatility will allow him to limit the effectiveness of Lammert and Holmes away from the basket. To really compete against UNC, though, it will be vital for Texas to hold Marcus Paige in check, who has been terrific in averaging over 19 points per game. What’s Texas’ best shot to keep Paige from going off against them?
Lathan: As of now the best bet is probably just making Paige work to catch the basketball. Once it is in his hands, he has shown an ability not only to shoot from the perimeter but also to create his own shot. The progress that Nate Britt has exhibited running the point has really allowed Paige the freedom to roam the perimeter and pick his spots. If Britt picks up where he left off against Kentucky, it’s difficult to isolate a two-guard as your defensive priority when Carolina’s strength ultimately lies in the paint. Paige is on an incredible run, and it may make more sense for Texas to allow him to get his points while focusing on locking down on the inside guys. He’s their only credible three-point shooter, so allowing him to score 20 or more won’t be a killer if Texas can match up inside the arc. Speaking of long-range shooting, if UNC does ultimately control the boards and Texas needs to have an edge outside, who is most likely to light it up and give Texas the perimeter advantage?
Taylor: Texas point guard Javan Felix leads the team in three-pointers made with 15 on the season, although he isn’t the type of sharpshooting guard that you would expect to get hot from deep. Aside from the aforementioned Lammert and Holmes, guard Demarcus Croaker has also shot the ball with moderate success from the three-point line. It’s not to suggest that the Longhorns are incapable of getting on a roll behind the arc, but it’s difficult to forecast such an effort with any confidence given the makeup of this roster. Regardless, this game should be entertaining for a multitude of reasons, including those we’ve discussed above. Let’s discuss what each team needs to do to come out on top Wednesday night before wrapping this thing up.
Texas wins if: The Longhorns are able to utilize their size down low with bigs like Ridley, Holmes and Ibeh. To this point, Texas has proved to be a good rebounding team, and that will likely need to continue to earn a win on Wednesday night. In addition, Rick Barnes and company will need to defend UNC standouts McAdoo and Paige in order to prevent them from having big games, something both have shown they can do this season. On paper, it looks like North Carolina should certainly have the advantage, but with the slip-ups the Tar Heels have had against UAB and Belmont, Texas will be hoping that a bored UNC team shows up again.
UNC wins if: The Tar Heels sustain their intensity from the Kentucky game and avoid a letdown against an unranked opponent. Another solid outing from James Michael McAdoo to complement Marcus Paige in the scoring column would be huge as well, but ultimately if UNC can continue its solid rebounding performances it probably has too much talent and too many bodies for the Longhorns.