NCAA Tournament Preview: UNC vs. Washington

Isaiah Thomas of the Washington Huskies moves the ball upcourt while taking on Georgia during the NCAA tournament.

Most basketball tams play a pretty slow game, when you're used to watching Carolina run up and down the floor. Only forty teams this year averaged more than 70 possessions a game, and of them only six made the tournament. And yet UNC is playing their second straight game against a team that played faster than they did before the tournament started. It's almost as if Roy Williams designed the bracket himself.

So yes, Washington likes to zip up and down the court, mostly spurred on by their point guard, the 5'8" Isaiah Thomas who leads the Huskies in scoring and assists. He's not distributing the ball at quite the rate that Kendall Marshall is, but he's not far behind, and considering the shooting load he's also undertaking, his assist rate might be even more impressive. His shooter of choice is Matthew Bryan-Amaning, the 6'9" senior who's only slightly behind him in points per game, and leads the team in rebounds.

Washington is a team that relies heavily on their offense. They shoot the ball very well, both inside and out. They turn the ball over very infrequently, and grab an impressive number of offensive boards. In addition to Bryan-Amaning, they get a fair amount of help here from Justin Holiday, their starting small forward who pulls down offensive rebounds at about the same rate that Harrison Barnes does. Holiday has also really improved his shooting this season – whereas before he was primarily on the court for his defensive pressure, this season he's actually shooting as well as anyone on the team.

The Huskies' defense is a little more suspect, especially since the two stars aren't particular strong on that end of the ball. That leaves Holiday and senior guard Venoy Overton to generate most of the stops among the starting five. It's also why you may see more of reserve JC transfer Aziz N'Diaye than usual. At 7'0", he's the tallest player for Washington, and dos a better job rebounding and blocking shots than Bryan-Amaning does. Washington on a whole generates an average number of turnovers and isn't great on the defensive boards; they also foul often, which could be to UNC's advantage. Just don't expect the Huskies to get desperate if fouls keep sending players to the bench; like a lot of fast teams, they routinely play ten men a game.

Washington lost three of their last five – two at home – to close out the regular season but put everything together for a Pac-10 tournament run. The Tar Heels best chance of victory is to use their defense to keep the Huskies off balance; most of their losses came on the rare occasions they were held to under a point per possession. Here UNCs height will be a big help. As with LIU, both members of UDub's starting backcourt are under six foot, and there's really no height outside of Bryan-Amaning and N'Diaye. Thomas will get his points, but Carolina can limit his penetration with their front line, and make his outside shooting more difficult at least with their longer reach. If they can clean up on the boards and, as always, not make so many stupid turnovers, they can advance to Newark next week. Failing that, it's going to be a long offseason.

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