No. 1 North Carolina (32-5) vs. No. 2 Kansas (30-6), 5:05 PM, CBS (St. Louis, MO)
Carolina had one of its ugliest offensive outings of the season in their Sweet 16 win over Ohio on Friday, and it seemed clear that they missed their point guard Kendall Marshall (broken wrist). According to the Fayetteville Observer, Marshall said yesterday that he is in pain whenever he tries to catch or pass with his right hand, and that makes his status seem doubtful for Sunday.
It seemed like the Tar Heels needed Marshall more than ever when things got difficult in the second half and they needed to rally. But they may not have him long (if at all), so Carolina is going to have to get used to it and play with more of a sense of urgency offensively.
Key to the game: The players outside the paint. With the battle down low sure to be a great one on both ends, both teams will need their frontcourts and their benches to step up. Against NC State, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey combined to shoot 10-of-24 and score 26 points while their six teammates had 34 points on 14-of-40 shooting. Carolina’s John Henson and Tyler Zeller combined for 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting against Ohio while their six teammates had 39 points on 12-of-39 shooting. Both Kansas and Carolina each had a guard step up: UNC’s Reggie Bullock had 17 and Elijah Johnson had 11 for Kansas. But everyone else on both teams did not play well. The battle in the paint might cancel out an advantage for either team, so someone’s guards are going to have to step up.
Opponent to watch: Thomas Robinson, Kansas. The National Player of the Year candidate is going to get his, as NC State found out. But he’s been limited in two straight games now, and it’s no coincidence Kansas has a combined margin of victory of six points over two double-digit seeds. Robinson has shot just 9-of-29 from the floor (31%) in the last two games and averaged 14.5 points (but 14 rebounds). More important than Robinson’s actual numbers: Kansas seems lost offensively when he’s not playing well. So If Robinson returns to his player of the year form against North Carolina, whether it be through UNC foul trouble or the sheer force of Robinson’s will, that would likely spell the end for Carolina.
Prediction: Kansas 72, North Carolina 67
Random Mascot Facts: I covered the origin of the Jayhawk in my last post, but Kansas didn’t have a costumed mascot until the 1960’s (Big Jay). But there is a smaller mascot, Baby Jay. And that one came out – literally – in 1971 during the Homecoming football game against Kansas State. Kansas rolled out a giant blue egg and at halftime, Baby Jay was “hatched” on the field. Amy Hurst, the original Baby Jay, made the costume herself (it cost $53 and weighed 30 pounds).
Last week: 5-4
Season: (148-54) (16-7 Postseason)
CHAPEL HILL, NC — On Sunday around 8:00 PM, the Carolina locker room made a funeral seem like a joyous place to be. They mumbled responses to questions they couldn’t possibly know how to answer in the moments after finding out Kendall Marshall – their leader, their point guard – could miss the rest of the NCAA tournament. In that instant, all of their national title hopes and dreams could be dead, and they knew that.
Two days later, the sad faces and short answers were replaced by the traits that have characterized this team all season: thoughtfulness, a little bit of humor and some steely resolve.
Tyler Zeller came into Smith Center media room first. The seven-footer laughed heartily at the notion that the NC State fans in St. Louis would be rooting for them, then spoke glowingly of freshman James Michael McAdoo, who has emerged in the last few weeks.
When asked if he still believed Carolina could still win it all, he didn’t hesitate to say yes. And when questioned about team morale, he became the first of three Tar Heels to reference ESPN. “We just watched a little ESPN segment (in the locker room) and we were joking about it. They basically said that we’re coming back to Chapel Hill instead of going to New Orleans (for the Final Four),” Zeller said.
John Henson followed Zeller, and Henson’s impish grin was back in full force as he cracked jokes about being the third-string point guard. He did take reps in practice a few months ago, running Carolina’s ‘box’ play. (When told head coach Roy Williams described it as cute, Henson wrinkled his nose and said: “I don’t know if it was ‘cute’. I haven’t been described as ‘cute’ for a long time by someone other than a female.”)
While Zeller had compliments for both freshman backup point guard Stilman White and senior utility man Justin Watts (both will split time at the point in Marshall’s potential absence), Henson wanted to pump up White. “People underestimate Stilman but he’s athletic. He can handle the ball. He can make great plays. He’s got a nice shot as well,” he said.
Henson joked about his wardrobe choice (a black t-shirt and red shorts) being in honor of NC State and then he too referenced ESPN. “I’ve seen ESPN SportsCenter this morning. They’re writing us off, which is fine with me,” Henson said in a way that suggested it was about as fine with him as Grant Gibbs’ slap at his injured wrist on Sunday. “We’re going to come out there, play hard and we’re still going to be the Carolina team that we were this year.”
Then in came Harrison Barnes. The notoriously stoic sophomore came out contrary to form, firing on all cylinders. And he was the most direct in his ESPN critique:
“Our confidence hasn’t changed at all. We feel like we have people that can step up,” Barnes said. “(ESPN personality) Doug Gottlieb, the person who knows everything, has his own statements. But we’re going to go out there and continue to play good basketball.”
“He couldn’t shoot free throws, so,” a reporter said.
“Among other things,” Barnes quipped.
It was somewhat ironic that the most pressure-laden sophomore arguably in UNC history was asked if the pressure was off now that Marshall could be out for the tournament. He raised an eyebrow incredulously.
“Overnight, we’ve just gotten kind of out of the race for a national championship, or people telling us – your friend Doug Gottlieb – we’re going to go back to Chapel Hill and not going to New Orleans,” Barnes said. “We just keep going. Whether the spotlight’s on us or not, we’re just going to continue to play basketball and continue to do what we do.”
An ESPN producer then told Barnes he had Gottlieb’s cell phone number and asked what he wanted him to text to Gottlieb. “Just text him, see if he can get that flight over to St. Louis. I’d love to meet him,” Barnes said dryly.
Even Barnes had jokes, talking about White’s first few experiences at point guard (“When he first got out there, we were a little scared that he might have an anxiety attack and just pass out”). And he had praise for Watts, who is adored by all of his teammates.
“(Watts) does a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on the court, just in terms of his leadership and his ability to help guys through their slumps and bring the freshmen in and really teach them the ropes of Carolina basketball,” Barnes said. “I think there would be a learning curve if he’s trying to go out there and get 10 assists a game. That’s hard to do for anybody. But in terms of just going out there and just running the offense, just being calm and collected, I feel like he can do that right now.”
All three of them were asked if they still believed, or if they wondered if all the injuries were some sort of a sign. The question made Zeller bring up his faith, something he rarely does in front of the assembled media.
“They never said it was easy. God’s got a plan for each and every one of us. You never know what it is. You’ve just got to keep going with what (God has) given you,” Zeller said. “There’s a scripture verse that says, ‘He’ll never give you anything that you can’t handle,’ and that’s the way we’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to make sure that we put our resources in and we try to prepare as much as possible with what we have and (God will) take care of us. If it’s meant to be, it is and if it’s not, it’s not.”
Some were less philosophical. “Nothing really surprises me anymore,” Barnes responded with a shrug. “That’s just the nature of the beast, really. You just have to roll with the punches and keep going.”
Their head coach accidentally cut Barnes’s press conference short by walking into it mid-answer. While Williams didn’t reference ESPN or Doug Gottlieb, he alluded to the extraordinarily large chip that he has always had on his shoulder.
“We had a scouting report about somebody that said, ‘He’s not very athletic, but he is aggressive.’ I said to my team, ‘That’s me, because I’m not very athletic but by golly, I am aggressive.’ Everybody said, ‘Whoa, what kind of practice are we going to have today?’” Williams said.
“I do love challenges, but I would love my challenge a lot more if I had that point guard out there, there’s no question about that.” As he reiterated repeatedly, though: “It doesn’t make any difference. We’ve got to play.”
Williams even had an epic rant when asked for one time too many about Marshall’s possible status on Friday. It can only be done justice in totality:
“I have no idea. I know you don’t like that but guys, I’m being truthful with you. If (Marshall) comes running in here right now and says, ‘God, I can play!’ I’ll say, ‘Well let’s talk about that.’ But he’s in a frickin’ cast from his thumb to his back. It’s not quite that big. It looked that big when he came out of surgery.
“I know I’m not helping you, but you’re asking me to do – I’ll tell you what. We’ll do it this way. He’s going to start the game, and he’s going to play. All right? Now what’s going to happen Friday night? ‘Damn liar, he told us all that stuff!’ Now, if I say, ‘There is no way in Hades that he is going to play’ and he plays, what are y’all going to say? ‘Well, why didn’t he tell us that?’ You’ve got me between a rock and a hard place.
“I cannot give you any answers. I’ve given everybody all the answers that I can give because I’ve said honestly: I. Do. Not. Know.” He then followed it up with an actual giggle.
It was clear how overwhelmed he still was, scrambling to find a way to replace Marshall in just three days, when asked if the pressure to win a national title was off.
“I’m putting probably more pressure on myself right now because I’ve got to try to come up with a way to replace somebody that is darned hard to replace,” Williams said. “It’s mind-boggling the kind of thought processes I’m going through right now. So I don’t feel that there’s any pressure taken off, but the pressure that I put on myself is what has driven me all the time anyway.”
Some of Williams’ residual stress was also from coping with the heaviness of it all. He was near tears twice, once when talking about what it was like to enter the x-ray room and find a red-eyed, devastated Marshall.
The second came when talking about how strong his team has been. “I’ve got a bunch of kids that have handled a lot of adversity,” Williams said, proceeding to list all the injuries, departures and suspensions that have plagued the team over the last two seasons.
“My team has been pretty dadgum special with their toughness. So I hope they don’t just rely on Ole Roy, because I’m not good enough. They’ve got to help me.”
And they seem ready to do that. Like their head coach, they have a chip on their shoulder (thanks, in part evidently, to Doug Gottlieb). Like their coach, they can find humor in almost any situation. And like their coach, they still believe: both in themselves and in each other.
“Hates it physical” was a line in the scouting report that the News and Observer’s UNC beat writer Andrew Carter found on the copier in the Smith Center in early January. It applied to both Carolina big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but it’s been the rap on Carolina in general.
“Soft” is a word that’s often been used when discussing the Tar Heels. And it’s not as if they haven’t earned it at times this year.
In Las Vegas against UNLV, a team full of undersized bigs killed Carolina on the boards en route to the Tar Heels’ first loss. Florida State stomped on Carolina’s face, then kicked it in the head a few times for good measure in a 33-point beat-down in Tallahassee.
“At the beginning of the season, Coach (Roy Williams) told us, ‘We just need more toughness because we’re missing easy shots around the rim, not doing all the things that show toughness’,” North Carolina freshman P.J. Hairston said.
To be physical with the Tar Heels, to get in their heads legally and cleanly, is easier said than done. Florida State managed to do it quite well, even provoking John Henson into a technical foul late in their romp over Carolina in January for slapping the ball out of Okaro White’s hands (a frustration play, but childish in hindsight).
And so when Henson felt Creighton’s Grant Gibbs got in a few extra slaps at his injured wrist at the 13:44 mark of the first half, he took exception. “(Gibbs) hit at my wrist about 3-4 times after the whistle had blown,” Henson said. “It got me a little fired up. It was just a culmination of things.”
It’s rare to find Henson without a boyish grin either already plastered on his face or threatening to poke its way out. Even Henson’s anger seems to be masked with a tinge of good humor.
But there were nothing but bad intentions on the gangly seven-footer’s face as he held the ball behind his back and walked chest-first into Gibbs, sticking his face right into Gibbs’ as he let him know what he thought of the play.
“John is probably the goofiest guy I know. He does nothing but laugh and smile and joke around, so when he gets mad, it has to be for a reason,” Hairston said.
Gibbs didn’t make eye contact with Henson and seemed uncomfortable in the moment, and the referees stepped in quickly to separate them. But Henson earned a technical foul for his outburst, and Gibbs walked back towards the Creighton bench and gave his team a wink.
There have been varying interpretations of that wink. At best, Gibbs was trying to entice Henson (mission accomplished) and at worst, he was trying to see how hurt Henson’s wrist actually was.
“I used to tell my guys all the time (that) I would fight anybody on a basketball court because you just pose for a second and then people come around and separate you,” Roy Williams said. “I want to see a guy who wants to fight on the playground when everybody’s going to say, ‘Okay, we need a little break, you guys go at it.’ That’s the guy I like on my team.”
Both Gibbs and Henson certainly showed elements of the fake bravado that comes with basketball fighting, although judging by how both reacted, neither seemed down for playground fighting, particularly Gibbs.
But it’s hardly new: it’s the kind of physicality that teams have displayed against Carolina all year. Creighton’s Gregory Echenique delivered a forearm shiver to an unsuspecting Tyler Zeller as he ran down the court (completely intentional; even head coach Greg McDermott lectured Echenique about the play afterwards) and there was plenty of off-ball contact not whistled.
It’s become as much a part of opponents’ game plans as getting back in transition or crashing the defensive boards. “We just have to play through it. That’s just one of the big things that we have to overcome: say someone’s bumping us, we talk to the ref. We’ll tell the ref and the ref will look out for it,” Hairston said. “Then that’s when we just play through it and play hard.
“And that’s when our run starts – if someone tries to get aggressive with us and we score on them, we get in their head first before they get in ours.”
That’s how the Tar Heels chose to respond. If it was a culmination of factors that led Henson to blow up, it was just as much that for the team in general. They are fed up with the perception that they can be pushed around, and they have shown that the last month.
It’s hard to identify the exact moment – Hairston said it was the game at NC State, a game the Wolfpack so desperately wanted. Carolina came out and quieted the hostile NC State crowd every time it wanted to get riled up.
“We just came out (at NC State) and went on this run and it showed,” Hairston said. “Then when we went to Duke, we played that whole game like it was just pure toughness. You could tell it in our eyes.”
That Duke game was revenge for Carolina’s earlier loss to Duke at home. But it was also a cleansing of sorts. The Duke loss in Chapel Hill had been a microcosm of Carolina’s season to date: flashes of brilliance mixed in with head-scratchingly silly plays and a failure to finish.
Closing the regular season in Durham, Carolina showed they have grown beyond that team. Instead of half-hearted efforts to get around screens, Carolina guards deftly maneuvered through them as a tall teammate stepped out to hedge hard on the perimeter.
Duke didn’t beat Carolina from the three-point line because the Tar Heels wouldn’t allow it. They exerted their will. Carolina’s failure to do that in prior games was a reason people questioned their toughness. It was a reason that the scout on them has been to rough them up, get in their heads, because they can’t handle it mentally.
So when Henson had his wrist slapped at, it wasn’t just about their teammate. It was a challenge to the entire team. “It sparked us. The next play, it was a big scramble on the floor for the ball – me, Harrison (Barnes) and like four other players,” Hairston said.
“It just pumped us up and when you pump us up, it’s not a good thing for the other team.”
No, it isn’t. Creighton learned that the hard way, as Carolina went on a 27-13 run over eight minutes to take a 39-24 lead with 5:33 to play before half.
It hasn’t always been pretty for Carolina. They aren’t the best offensive team (even with point guard Kendall Marshall, who could miss the remainder of the tournament with a broken wrist). But when Marshall was in foul trouble at Maryland, the Tar Heels fought through it. They could have felt sorry for themselves. But maybe it was that game in College Park when they realized no one is going to feel sorry for them.
If they want to withstand runs by opponents, they have to score. If they want to stop runs, they have to defend. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
And they have to expect that if Marshall does play, opponents will target his wrist. Seeing how Henson reacted the last time someone got in a few shots post-whistle, an opponent will likely “test” Henson’s wrist as well. They’ll just have to respond the same way they did against Creighton.
The Tar Heels had shown toughness in other ways this season, like staring down an opponent after a big play or dunking late in a game at Maryland to quiet the College Park residents.
Whether those types of actions represented fake toughness is debatable. But for Roy Williams, the only kind of toughness he cares about is the kind that shows up on the scoreboard. They’ve shown that the last month, through all circumstances.
“After John perceived it to be unfair on (Gibbs’) play with him, my whole team got fired up. My statement is, ‘Let’s beat them on the scoreboard. That’s the only place that matters.’
“The way our team responded, they didn’t like what had happened to John and the next few minutes, we really played inspired basketball. But you don’t need to talk – just play,” Williams said.
Comparisons between Creighton and Duke were brought up quite a bit by both North Carolina head coach Roy Williams and the players. That’s mostly because of Creighton’s reliance on the three-pointer (the Bluejays score 31% of their points from three). UNLV, Florida State (twice) and Duke have been able to get going from three-point range and upset the Tar Heels. If eight-seed Creighton is going knock off the top-seeded Tar Heels, they’ll have to get hot from three as well.
Taking out the Kentucky loss, the three teams that have beaten North Carolina (four total games) have combined to shoot 50-of-117 (42.7%) from three and make 12.5 per game. Creighton makes 8.2 three-pointers a game and shoots 42.5% on the year, so putting up numbers like that wouldn’t be crazy for the Bluejays.
But another important similarity between all the teams that have beatean Carolina – UNLV, Duke and even FSU to a degree – is that all have multiple three-point shooting threats, including a big man that can make a few. Creighton has five players that have made at least 20 three-pointers this year, and they’re led by Doug McDermott, a 6-foot-7 Stretch 4.
If John Henson can’t go for the Tar Heels, freshman James Michael McAdoo likely will have to chase around McDermott, who is averaging 23 points on 61% shooting (49.5% from three).
“James is a fantastic defender,” Carolina center Tyler Zeller said of McAdoo. “He’s got great feet and moves his feet very well, so he’ll be able to stay in front of him. I know (Doug) McDermott is a fantastic player, but I think James will be able to match up with him pretty well.”
McAdoo compared to McDermott to Duke’s Ryan Kelly, another Stretch 4. That matchup has given Carolina a lot of problems in the past if for no other reason than it takes one of its shot-blockers away from the basket. But Carolina’s bigs (and their guards, for that matter) have struggled sometimes with switching screens and on the perimeter or chasing around a Stretch 4 that can move around and get his own shot.
“Going over the scouting report, he’s a great player and it’s not only me guarding him but there’s going to be four other guys on the court that have got to step up,” McAdoo said. “He’s averaging 23.0 points a game, so he’s proved himself. We’ve just got to go out there and try to make him uncomfortable.”
The freshman has come a long way, but there’s a ways left to go certainly. Defensively is probably where he’s made the most progress as most of his points are coming off of putbacks. But even then, he finds himself lost at times.
So guarding a guy that was a National Player of the Year candidate as late as January – in an NCAA tournament game – will present quite the challenge.
“He has a tendency to overrun on the defensive end. He can get off balance and then all of a sudden he’s out there around the centerline trying to find out where the other team is and his guy is 37 feet away from him,” Williams said.
Of course, Williams took halftime of yesterday’s Vermont game to demonstrate to McAdoo “in perfect stance and perfect quickness” exactly how he wanted it done. “One play in the second half, he’s out there denying and he stepped and the guy went back door and he stepped back out,” Williams said.
“All of a sudden he looked over at the bench and he was grinning, looking at us and nodding,” Williams said. “He’s still a kid and that’s something that we really enjoy, too.”
The laid-back freshman looks more like a young Rick Fox than a modern-day college basketball player. His retro-style Carolina hat had an air of coolness to it that some of his other teammates’ fashion choices didn’t.
But the reason for choices like that can be simpler than they seem.
“I like the old-school, snapback baseball cap look,” McAdoo said. He smiled sheepishly, and in a quieter voice than normal (his deep voice is usually barely audible), added, “Plus, I need a haircut.”
No. 1 North Carolina (28-4) vs. No. 5 NC State (22-11), 1:00 PM, ESPN/ACC Network/ESPN 3
Whether John Henson plays or not for North Carolina (he injured his left wrist yesterday), NC State will be a very tough out for the Tar Heels. The Wolfpack has as much momentum as they have had all year long. Their cautious optimism that preceded the first two Carolina games has been replaced by a steady confidence. Guys like senior C.J. Williams have never beaten North Carolina, and this is his last chance. “I haven’t had an opportunity to beat them yet. We need to get this one tomorrow,” Williams said. “I really feel like we’re coming in with a lot of momentum. I think we’re ready to play them toe-to-toe.”
Key to the game: C.J./Calvin Leslie. If Calvin shows up for 40 minutes – heck, even 25 minutes – like he did against Virginia, State might win by double digits. He was dominant on both ends against Virginia, but he could seemingly score at will against a very good Cavalier defense. He made 9-of-11 shots and pulled down 14 rebounds in just 31 minutes, and after picking up two quick fouls in the first half, he didn’t pick up any more. Leslie likely won’t have to face his old nemesis John Henson, but even when Henson did play in the last meeting Leslie had 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting and added 12 rebounds. The only difference was he fouled out in just 29 minutes. He’ll have to stay out of foul trouble, but he certainly proved he could do that yesterday.
Random stat: North Carolina held Maryland to 38.7% shooting on Friday, marking the ninth time in the last 14 games the Tar Heels have held an opponent under 40% shooting. Carolina is 19-0 when doing that this season. NC State has shot 50% or better in four of its last five games.
Prediction: NC State 79, North Carolina 74
No. 2 Duke (27-5) vs. No. 3 Florida State (22-9), 3:00 PM, ESPN/ACC Network/ESPN3
For a team that supposedly loves this event more than any other, Duke didn’t play very well against Virginia Tech last night. A performance like that against a Florida State team that seems to be playing very well will get the Blue Devils sent home. But it’s hard to imagine Duke playing that badly two games in a row. Still, a win over Duke in this event would be huge for the Florida State program.
For Duke’s Andre Dawkins, it’s been literally feast or famine for him in seemingly every game this year. And lately, it’s been a lot of famine. He had 13 points at Boston College on February 19 and then 22 at FSU on February 23, but since, he has three points in four games and has shot 1-of-12 from the floor (1-10 from three). Duke can win without him playing well, but it would be much, much easier if Dawkins could give them consistent production off the bench.
Random stat: The season fittingly ends for Virginia Tech: the Hokies went 12:42 of game time in the second half against Duke with just one field goal.
Prediction: Duke 77, Florida State 71
Last week: 9-3
Season: 139-48 (68-28 ACC) (7-1 ACC Tournament)
Virginia Tech (15-13, 4-9) at Duke (24-4, 11-2), 12:00 PM, ACC Network/ESPN3
All signs point to an epic showdown pitting Duke and North Carolina in the season finale, and Duke only has to beat Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to hold up their end of the bargain. Virginia Tech will fight hard, but at this point, the Hokies will be fortunate to make the NIT.
Key to the game: Ryan Kelly. Duke’s junior forward has quietly improved into one of Duke’s most critical players, and his line at Florida State wasn’t as good as his floor game. He made some critical plays when his team needed them the most, and he had some fantastic passes to set up his teammates for easy scores or free throws. Duke’s junior class (except Mason Plumlee) had been largely absent until recently, when Kelly, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins have all stepped up their games. Duke needs them to continue to do that because there’s not a ton of experience elsewhere on the roster.
Random stat: Virginia Tech hasn’t played as well as it could at times, but the Hokies have had 10 of their 13 ACC games decided by five points or fewer and are 4-6 in those games. Their only double-digit losses have come to North Carolina, Duke and Miami. If there’s a good sign for the Hokies, it’s that they’ve won three of their last five decided by five points or less after starting ACC play 1-5 in such games. But just one of those wins have come on the road (at Virginia).
Prediction: Duke 76, Virginia Tech 59
Boston College (8-19, 3-10) at Wake Forest (12-15, 3-10), 1:00 PM, RSN/ESPN3
I wrote at the beginning of conference play that if Boston College head coach Steve Donahue won five ACC games, I’d vote for him as Coach of the Year. He’s still wins two away but has Wake Forest and Georgia Tech as two of his remaining games. Watching BC play, they’re obviously well-coached but execution can only take you so far: experience and talent matter. Wake Forest has been pretty much the exact opposite of BC and yet they’re more talented, which is why they handled the Eagles in Chestnut Hill earlier this year. In theory, they should again.
Key to the game: Boston College’s three-point shooting. The Eagles aren’t going to win many games if they don’t hit three’s. And they’ve hit 10-of-33 in their last two games, losing both by double digits. Last time against Wake, they hit just 4-of-21 3’s (19%, their lowest percentage in ACC play). Maybe with a few days to rest, they’ll be able to knock some down in Winston-Salem. But Wake’s had time off too and it’s clear they’re still mentally engaged.
Random stat: Believe it or not, there are scenarios that exist for BC to get an eight-seed in the ACC Tournament (courtesy of BC Interruption). If you are so inclined, click here.
Prediction: Wake Forest 69, Boston College 59
Maryland (16-11, 6-7) at Georgia Tech (9-18, 2-11), ACC Network split/ESPN3
Maryland still has an outside shot at a top-four seed in the ACC Tournament, but with games against Virginia and Carolina remaining, it’s not likely. Still, the Terrapins need to build on their positive momentum after a huge comeback win over Miami and they have to beat Georgia Tech, who has looked awful lately.
Key to the game: James Padgett’s development. With Alex Len and Ashton Pankey going through freshmen inconsistencies, Padgett has been perhaps the most consistent big man for Maryland this year. Padgett is 17th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and in the last three games, he is averaging 12.3 points per game. In Maryland’s ACC wins, Padgett has averaged 12.2 points in Maryland’s six ACC wins and 6.6 in ACC losses. The Terrapins really need him to develop.
Random stat: Georgia Tech is now averaging 50.2 points per game at home in ACC play. Since their home opener against Duke when they scored 74 points, Georgia Tech has not scored more than 52 points and has averaged 45.4 points in that span.
Prediction: Maryland 66, Georgia Tech 49
NC State (18-10, 7-6) at Clemson (14-13, 6-7), ACC Network split/ESPN3
As crazy as it may sound, this game could help determine fourth place in the conference standings. All five of the teams fighting for that spot (with records between 8-5 and 6-7) have tough remaining schedules. If NC State wants to have any shot at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, it likely has to win out. Clemson is playing better lately and it’s a tough place to play, so it won’t be easy.
Keys to the game: Closing strong. Taking out a 22-point loss to North Carolina, Clemson’s ACC losses have all come by seven points or less. Clemson has just really struggled at making key plays late in close games, whether it be making foul shots or making a big basket when they really need it. NC State, on the other hand, is 2-2 in games decided by five points or less in league play (6-3 overall). But the Wolfpack’s confidence has really been hurt with its three-game losing streak, and that could turn the tide in Clemson’s favor, particularly at home.
Scott Wood. NC State’s junior sharp-shooter has been anything but lately, making just 3-of-22 shots over the last three games (all losses) and just 3-of-15 three’s. He seems visibly frustrated, not to mention exhausted. But NC State needs him: he has averaged 16.7 points in State’s seven ACC wins and just 8.3 in losses. Maybe with a few days off, he will have his legs back under him.
Random stat: While four of Clemson’s six league wins have come against the bottom three teams in the league (Wake Forest and Georgia Tech), Their other two wins have come against the No. 3 team (FSU) and No. 4 team (Virginia). And of NC State’s five wins, six have come against the bottom three teams.
Prediction: N.C. State 67, Clemson 65
North Carolina (24-4, 11-2) at Virginia (21-6, 8-5), 4:00 PM, ESPN/ESPN3
Charlottesville has traditionally been a house of horrors for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels showed impressive focus on the road at NC State on Tuesday. Virginia had a nice road win as well but the Cavaliers are extremely hobbled right now. Virginia doesn’t match up well with Carolina, but that doesn’t always matter in hostile road environments.
Keys to the game: North Carolina on the offensive glass. The Tar Heels dominated the backboards against a Virginia team that typically doesn’t allow opponents to do that, and you’d better believe UVA head coach Tony Bennett will emphasize that to his team in the rematch. Virginia is very difficult to score on, particularly on a first-shot opportunity, but Carolina is starting to take better shots as opposed to just forcing up looks and rebounding their misses as they did against Virginia.
Virginia’s three-point shooting. North Carolina is going to give up some open looks from three, but the Cavaliers have to knock them down. Lately they’ve been doing that, hitting 15-of-35 three’s (42.9%) in their last two games. Prior to that, Virginia had made just 48-of-171 three’s (28.1%) in league play. Carolina’s ACC opponents have made 33.8% of their three’s but the two teams that have beaten them in league play (Florida State and Duke) had to combine to shoot 26-of-63 (41.3%) from beyond the arc. Virginia may not have to make that many, but they’ll have to make more than they did in Chapel Hill (3-of-16, 18.8 percent).
Random stat: North Carolina posted its third-highest offensive efficiency number this season (per Ken Pomeroy) against NC State on Tuesday. But the Tar Heels allowed an offensive efficiency of 110.9, the fifth-highest it has allowed this year (the other four higher offensive efficiencies allowed by Carolina resulted in losses). It’s a big swing for NC State, which posted a 77.2 rating in Chapel Hill, its lowest of the year.
Prediction: North Carolina 68, Virginia 59
Last week: 10-3
Season: 120-41 (56-22 ACC)
Clemson (13-13, 5-7) at Georgia Tech (9-17, 2-10), 7:00 PM, RSN/ESPN3
Most important players: Andre Young, Clemson and Mfon Udofia, Georgia Tech. Andre Young went off the last time Clemson faced Georgia Tech, scoring 29 points on 9-of-12 shooting (7-of-9 from three). He’s made just 35.5% of his three’s since, but his 3-of-7 performance at Carolina on Saturday was his best in a road venue all season.
Without Glen Rice, Mfon Udofia has to do more scoring for Georgia Tech to win. His 15 points at Virginia Tech on Saturday were his most in nearly a month and nearly enough for the Yellow Jackets to win. Udofia has averaged 13.8 points in games without Rice and just 9.3 in games with Rice this year.
Random stat: Georgia Tech has lost ten ACC games, including six on the road. They have lost by an average of 8.2 points in six ACC road games compared to 15.8 points at home. Georgia Tech has averaged 52.8 points in home ACC games compared to 64.6 points in road games.
Prediction: Clemson 66, Georgia Tech 53
Miami (16-9, 7-5) at Maryland (15-11, 5-7), 8:00 PM, ACC Network split/ESPN3
Maryland is a tough place to play, but if Miami wants to keep its NCAA tournament at-large hopes alive, the Hurricanes have to win.
Most important players: Durand Scott, Miami and Alex Len, Maryland. Durand Scott had his ACC high of 24 points (on 11-of-14 shooting) in the overtime win over Maryland in the first meeting, and he’s found his groove lately, averaging 16.5 points on 61% shooting in the last two. Maryland’s backcourt is that much thinner without Pe’Shon Howard, and Scott could have his way with the Terrapins.
Alex Len’s last good stretch for Maryland came against Miami and North Carolina, when he averaged 12.5 points on 64% shooting. In the four games since, he has eight total points on 36.4% shooting. Maryland needs more from the talented big man, and maybe he can find a spark against Miami.
Random stat: Maryland lost 71-44 at Virginia on Saturday, but the game was tied at 31 at halftime. Maryland scored just 13 second-half points and just 11 in the final 19:52. Maryland averaged 0.34 points per possession from the 19:52 mark until the 3:45 mark when head coach Mark Turgeon took out the starters in the second half and made just three field goals.
Prediction: Miami 74, Maryland 67
North Carolina (23-4, 10-2) at N.C. State (18-9, 7-5), 8:00 PM, ACC Network split/ESPN3
With all the hoopla surrounding the ejection of former NC State superstars Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta last Saturday (and their 1988-89 team being honored before the game), this will be the most hostile environment North Carolina has faced this year. But if the Wolfpack can’t persevere through in-game adversity, the atmosphere won’t matter.
Most important players: Lorenzo Brown, NC State and John Henson, North Carolina. Lorenzo Brown’s two games last week were a mixed bag, but the NC State point guard did the right things against Florida State and Duke: he attacked the basket and averaged 7.0 free throw attempts. Carolina has struggled at times to stop the dribble, and Brown must remember to attack the basket.
John Henson has held NC State’s C.J. Leslie to a combined 9-of-27 shooting in the last two State-Carolina games. And Leslie’s numbers have gotten worse, not better, every time he faces Carolina. Leslie’s propensity to try to take Henson one-on-one in the last meeting really hurt the Wolfpack, and if Henson continues to shut him down as he has, Carolina should win easily.
Random stat: Two out of NC State’s last three head coaches have won their first game against North Carolina at home: Les Robinson and Sidney Lowe. Robinson (1990-96) won three of his first four vs. UNC and four out of six home games against the Tar Heels. Sidney Lowe (2006-11) won his first game against Carolina at home but lost 11 straight after that. Since Robinson left prior to the 1996-97 season, State is 3-13 at home against Carolina.
Prediction: North Carolina 81, NC State 71
Virginia (20-6, 7-5) at Virginia Tech (15-12, 4-8), 9:00 PM, ESPNU
How Virginia Tech won the first meeting between these two teams earlier this year remains a mystery, but the exhausted Hokies likely won’t have enough magic to repeat that, and Virginia knows how much it needs this game.
Most important players: Mike Scott, Virginia and Dorian Finney-Smith, Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech big man Victor Davila will miss this game with an injury, meaning whatever formula the Hokies concocted for slowing Virginia star Mike Scott last time could be adversely affected. Scott is averaging 20.6 points in UVA’s ACC wins and 16 in losses, so the Hokies will have to find a way to slow him.
Virginia Tech freshman Dorian Finney-Smith wasn’t a factor in the first meeting with Virginia this year, but he is averaging 10.8 points in the last five games. His length and athleticism could be a factor on both ends for Virginia Tech, particularly against Virginia’s thin front line.
Random stat: Virginia’s slow style of play has been a big part of the reason for their excellent scoring defense, but the Cavaliers are one of many slow-tempo teams that have played in the ACC since the shot clock was instituted. And yet they have held 11 opponents under 50 points this year, the most by an ACC team in the shot clock era.
Prediction: Virginia 54, Virginia Tech 51
Last week: 7-4
Season: 115-40 (51-21 ACC)
Here’s part two of the Duke-Carolina preview, with a few more stats and players to keep an eye on, plus a final prediction.
Stat to watch: The foul line. This is a battle of two teams that both thrive on getting to the foul line and generally keep opponents off of it. For Carolina, they haven’t been to the line as much (7th in the ACC in free throw rate) and Duke hasn’t kept opponents off of it as well as it has in the past (9th in defensive free-throw rate). Duke is getting to the line quite a bit (2nd in free throw rate), but North Carolina isn’t allowing opponents to get there much (1st in defensive free-throw rate). Duke gets 20.6% of its points from the free-throw line in conference (third-most in the league) and 22.8% in all games (50th nationally) while North Carolina’s opponents get 18.1% of their points from the foul line on the year (273rd-most nationally) and conference opponents just 19.2%.
On the road in the ACC, Duke has scored 24.4% of its points from the foul line (just 16.7% at home) while Carolina’s ACC opponents have scored just 9.5% of their points from the foul line. Something’s got to give. The Tar Heels have shot almost the same at home in league play (67.1%) as on the road (68.8%) but they average more attempts (23.3) on the road than at home (18.3). But their opponents average a lot more attempts – and make a lot more – at home as well, shooting 61.5% on 9.8 attempts in the Smith Center compared to 74.7% on 20.8 attempts in Carolina road games. In the Smith Center, Carolina has out-shot its opponents from the foul line 73-39 (outscoring them 49-24) in four games.
Duke shot just 63.3% in two non-conference road games (both losses) attempting just 15 foul shots. Their opponents actually didn’t fare much better (64.3% and 14.0 attempts). But in ACC play, Duke has really dominated the foul line on the road, averaging 22 attempts and making 84.1% of them. Their opponents have averaged 18.5 attempts and made just 59.5 percent. At home, Duke has shot just 61.7% from the foul line in four league games (averaging 20.3 attempts) and opponents have shot better at 68.5% (22.3 attempts per game). How often do Duke opponents average more free throws in Cameron? But the more important stat is that Duke’s road opponents aren’t getting to the line as much and a newly-focused road Duke team not only is getting to the line, but making them. They’ll have to keep up that trend tonight. Duke is 3-3 this season when making the same or fewer amount of free throws as its opponent and 16-1 when making more free throws.
Important players: Ryan Kelly, Duke and Tyler Zeller, North Carolina. Tyler Zeller may be a senior, but he has only seen significant meetings in four of the eight Carolina-Duke games in his tenure (one in 2010 and all three last year). He has averaged 15 points in those meetings on 59% shooting, adding 23 rebounds and four blocks. Last year, he had 24 and 13 in Cameron but just 28 total in the final two meetings on 12-of-22 shooting with just nine rebounds in the final two games combined. But he is on perhaps the most torrid stretch of his career, averaging 17.8 points in ACC play and scoring 78 points in 103 minutes over the last four games. He is shooting 60% in that span (which includes a 5-of-13 performance at Wake) and 24-of-28 from the foul line (85.7%). He has also averaged 11.3 rebounds, a steal and four blocks in the last four games. He needs to maintain that pace and be the kind of factor in this game that Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough have been in years past for North Carolina.
In Duke’s four losses, Ryan Kelly has been either invisible or has struggled in all of them, shooting 30.4% and averaging 5.8 points. In two ACC losses, he has shot 31.6% and averaged 9.0 points compared to shooting 55.1% and 14.5 points in Duke’s six ACC wins. But the matchup is still a tricky one for North Carolina, as Kelly can post up and score as well as he can shoot three’s. North Carolina’s John Henson is a prolific shot-blocker, but Kelly should try to pull him out to the perimeter to open up space for Duke’s guards to drive to the basket. Kelly barely played in his first two career games against North Carolina (in 2010) but in three meetings last year, he had a total of 15 points on 6-of-21 shooting (2-of-13 from three). in the first two meetings, he had just six points on 1-of-14 shooting (1-of-11 from three) but in Duke’s blowout win in the ACC Tournament, he had nine points on 4-of-7 shooting to go with three steals and three blocks.
Random stat(s): In the Mike Krzyzewski era, North Carolina leads the all-time series 38-36 (although Duke lists it as 36-36 since Coach Krzyzewski was out with a back injury in the 1994-95 season). … Duke’s Mason Plumlee made just 2-of-10 foul shots against Virginia. He has made 19-of-23 (82.6%) in the six conference games since. …. North Carolina is 11-2 when Kendall Marshall plays 35 or more minutes. … North Carolina has shot 50% or better from the floor just three times in its last 24 halves.
Prediction: North Carolina 84, Duke 77
Last week: 10-2
Season: 100-34 (36-15 ACC)
NC State (15-5, 4-1) at North Carolina (16-3, 3-1) (16-3, 3-1), 7:00 PM, ESPN
Finally, this rivalry means something again – at least for now. But if new N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried continues recruiting as well as he has, it will mean something for years to come. If North Carolina wins, they have a shot of going into their first matchup with Duke on February 8th with a 7-1 ACC record. If N.C. State wins, they could not only sweep the Tar Heels but also have a shot at finishing first in the league. They have the easiest ACC schedule of any of the contending teams. And N.C. State, should they win tonight, could go into a three-game stretch in mid-February of Duke, Florida State and North Carolina with a 9-1 ACC record.
Stat to watch: Rebounding. It’s been a bugaboo for both teams in their losses. North Carolina was out-rebounded in all three of its losses and the worst was by UNLV (48-39); the Rebels had 20 second-chance points while the Tar Heels managed a season-low six. N.C. State has been out-rebounded in three losses; it held Stanford to just 36.2% shooting but allowed the Cardinal to post the highest offensive rebounding percentage allowed by the Wolfpack this year.
After Florida State dominated Carolina on the glass in a way that went beyond statistics, the Tar Heels bounced back by out-rebounding Virginia Tech 51-28. Carolina has shown it is capable of rebounding efforts like that but like everything else with the Tar Heels, it comes down to their focus and concentration.
N.C. State was out-rebounded by Miami, a big reason the Hurricanes were able to erase a large second-half deficit on Sunday. But N.C. State is an excellent rebounding team and will try to be physical with Carolina’s bigs, since they lack the height advantage. It has worked for some teams but when John Henson and Tyler Zeller are attacking the boards as savagely as they have been (averaging 22 boards between them the last two games), they’re difficult to stop.
Carolina has allowed nine teams to post an offensive rebounding percentage of 30% or better and 6-3 in those games. N.C. State is 3-3 when it fails to crack 32% on the offensive glass. Something’s got to give, and if N.C. State lets the Tar Heels get a bunch of second looks, this game will be over very early. And if the Tar Heels let an already-good offensive team in N.C. State get second and third looks, they could be in trouble.
Most important players: Reggie Bullock, North Carolina and Scott Wood, N.C. State. The point guard battle will be the most closely watched, but this one will be interesting: not watching the two go one-on-one, but what the game means for each player. Wood has hit just 4-of-24 shots (16.7%) in four career games against the Tar Heels, adding just 3-of-18 three’s (16.7%) and 1.3 points per game. Last year, Wood shot 47% (45% from three ) in 14 ACC games against teams not named Carolina, averaging 10.1 points in 31.5 minutes. In two games against North Carolina, he shot 20% and 33.3% from three (1-of-3), averaging 2.5 points in 23.0 minutes and adding 4.0 fouls. The Wolfpack needs him way too much for him to do that again. Scott Wood has been in single digits scoring-wise or missed games due to injury six times this season. N.C. State is 3-3 in those games and one of the wins was a nail-biter at home against Princeton.
Reggie Bullock will be stepping into the starting lineup in place of Dexter Strickland, who tore his ACL against Virginia Tech and will miss the season. Strickland was Carolina’s best perimeter defender (though Bullock, who has won three defensive player of the game awards from the Carolina coaching staff, is no slouch). “You can teach someone the defensive principles to be a better team defender and I think Reggie’s done a better job of learning those. Now, we’re throwing him another curveball because he’s got to understand now that when you’re playing the two-spot full-time you’ve got to be able to get back and give us defensive balance sometimes as well,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “The one thing he’s really improved on is his offensive rebounding … Now, he can’t get (to the offensive boards) quite as much because he’s got to be able to get back.”
Bullock normally shoots three’s well but he’s gone cold from three and so have the Tar Heels. In the last six games, Bullock has shot just 8-of-27 from three (29.6%) and Carolina has shot 28%. In the first 13 games, he shot 26-of-61 (42.6%) and the team shot 39.1 percent. He’s just 1-of-10 shooting (0-of-4 from three) in two career games against N.C. State, although he has played a total of 28 minutes in the two games. Obviously, he’ll need to do more this time around.
Random stat(s): Lorenzo Brown is averaging 6.9 assists per game, making him the first N.C. State player to average more than 4.6 in a season since Chris Corchiani in 1991 (9.6). …. Kendall Marshall currently has the best career assist-turnover ratio in Carolina history (2.8). Ty Lawson, not surprisingly, is second (2.78). Third and fourth? King Rice (2.4) and Matt Doherty (2.3). Ed Cota and Raymond Felton aren’t in the top five. … N.C. State has shot a higher percentage in five losses (47.8%) than it has in five wins (47.7%). … Usually, more offensive rebounds means more missed shots, which is good for a defense. But Carolina is 3-3 when opponents have more offensive rebounds and 11-0 when they Carolina has more offensive rebounds.
Prediction: North Carolina 87, N.C. State 79
Last week: 7-5
Season: 82-31 (19-12 ACC)
North Carolina (15-2, 2-0) at Florida State (10-6, 1-1), 2:00 PM, ESPN/ESPN3
It’s always tough for North Carolina to travel to Florida State. The last four meetings between the two teams in Tallahassee have been decided by a total of 17 points. Taking out an 11-point Carolina win (which came in overtime), three of the last four games at FSU were decided by a total of six points (all Carolina wins). Roy Williams hasn’t lost at Florida State since a 90-81 overtime loss in his first trip there in 2004. ESPN College GameDay will be there on site and the game tips just two hours after that ends. Florida State announced today that the student tickets sold out in just under an hour. It will be a raucous environment and FSU’s upperclassmen know that they have yet to beat Carolina at home.
Stat to watch: Florida State’s shooting percentage. Yes, the Seminoles have been awful offensively this year and Florida State is known for its defense. But Carolina has proven that against mediocre to bad offensive teams, it can do enough defensively to win when it struggles offensively. In losses, Carolina’s defense has let it down: the Tar Heels are 2-2 when they allow a team to have an offensive efficiency of 100 or higher (per Ken Pomeroy). Carolina’s second-worst offensive performance this year was a 99.0 rating against Wisconsin – the Tar Heels won, and it was the third-best offensive rating Wisconsin has allowed. UNC’s worst offensive efficiency rating was 96.3 against Michigan State but the 79.1 defensive rating was the best by a Michigan State opponent this year.
Florida State’s defense let it down in some of its losses. But Michigan State, Princeton and Harvard all shot 41% or worse and still beat FSU because the Seminoles scored just 0.68 points per possession in those games (0.86 in all other games), and averaged 54.3 points on 39.4% shooting. FSU is last in the league in points per possession (0.826) and in loss of ball (21.5%), behind teams like Boston College. But the Seminoles have a history of turning it on: in home games against Carolina and Duke last year, FSU shot 46% from the floor and 44% from three. In all other ACC games, the Seminoles shot 43% from the floor but just 32.8% from three. In Carolina’s last two trips to Tallahassee (2009 and 2011), FSU shot 11-of-28 (39.3%) from three and 48% from the floor. That’s certainly above what FSU usually does. Maybe their offense will wake up yet again.
Most important players: Deividas Dulkys, Florida State and John Henson, North Carolina. This seems particularly appropriate as the last time these teams met, these two got involved in a trash-talking incident that earned each a technical foul. Dulkys seems destined to break out of a recent slump. The senior three-point specialist began the season shooting 13-of-27 from three (48.1%) in the first seven games. In nine games since, he has shot just 5-of-29 (17.2%). With his struggles, FSU went from shooting 34.7% from three in the first seven games to 27.7% in the last nine. In two career wins against the Tar Heels, Dulkys shot 9-of-20 from the floor and 8-of-17 from three, averaging 13.0 points in just 17.5 minutes. In three losses, Dulkys shot 5-of-19 (5-of-16 from three), averaging 4.7 points. FSU desperately needs three’s, particularly as it will be tough to score inside on UNC.
Considering FSU’s length, it would stand to reason that lanky John Henson might struggle. Instead, he’s averaging 15.7 points on 64.3% shooting against the Seminoles, adding 9.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. History against FSU aside, Henson would seem like an early front-runner for ACC Player of the Year if not for Virginia’s Mike Scott. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 10.1 rebounds while shooting 55% and blocking 3.0 shots per game. In Carolina’s two losses this year (both on the road and against good defenses), Henson has shot just 8-of-23 (34.8%, and just 4-of-9 from the foul line). Carolina needs the Henson that has shot 100-of-174 (57%) in all other games.
Random Stat: Per @Strohsahl on Twitter: “Under Roy Williams, UNC is 3-5 in both the 3rd and 4th games of the ACC schedule. They have a winning record in all others.” From 2004-07, it was worse: Carolina was 1-3 in its third league game and 1-3 in its second league game. The only time Carolina has won games three and four was in 2009, when it started ACC play 0-2. Last year, Carolina lost by 20 at Georgia Tech in Game No. 3 before Kendall Marshall took over as the starting point guard against Clemson in Game 4 (which Carolina won by 10). …. Florida State is also 3-5 in its third ACC game in that same span and 4-4 in ACC home openers. Perhaps the oddest stat? FSU has started ACC play 1-1 seven times in the last eight season.
Prediction: North Carolina 80, Florida State 73
Last week: 6-3 (4-2)
Season: 68-24 (7-5)