There are two schools of thought on how to introduce a young team to the rigors of college basketball. Roy Williams has chosen one way, to throw a series of quality opponents at his team and hope they improve against the stiff competition. It appears Texas tried to do the same, signing up for the CBE Classic that had them facing Iowa and Pittsburgh, and scheduling Southern California a week later. Their opponents haven't provided the necessary challenge, though – only Pittsburgh (and also rans Long Beach St. and Western Carolina) cracked Ken Pomeroy's Top 100. The Longhorns haven't payed down to their competition, winning their nine games by an average of 31 points, and having no game end closer than 16. They've got the most efficient defense in the country, and a top 15 offense. How good are they really?
Pretty good. The defense is built around two senior big men, Dexter Pittman and Damion James. Pittman is a shotblocker the Heels rarely see outside of practice, currently 15th in the country in possession adjusted blocks. (For comparison, DeMarcus Cousins is 17th, and Ed Davis 58th.) The two are also good for most of the team's rebounds, but it's defensing the ball where they excel. No team is better at defending the two. For that matter, only Florida is better at defending the three. It is extremely difficult to score against the Longhorns.
There are only two bright sides for the Heels when they have the ball. The first is their height. After Pittman (6'10') and James (6'7"), only a pair of 6'7" underclassmen get a significant playing time in the paint. The Heels have a big height advantage that Texas will counter with the typical Rick Barnes rough style of play, but UNC can rotate quite a few people in the paint and run them hard. Taking Pittman out of the game through fouls or exhaustion will go along way for getting Carolina the lead.
The other glimmer of hope is that the Texas defense is focused more on shot defense and rebounding than turnover generation. Getting the ball inside to Carolina's scorers will still be very difficult, and it's a task that the Heels will often screw up for large stretches of the game, but there won't be the pressure on the perimeter ball handlers UNC had to battle at Kentucky and Syracuse.
On offense, Texas isn't big on the three, although point guard J'Covan Brown is prone to launch the three, and big men James and Jordan Hamilton will also drift out occasionally for the long shot. The true shooting guards, Avery Bradley and Douglas Balbay, are more likely to drive to the hoop than pull up from behind the arc. I have mixed opinions on how well this will succeed. Carolina's big men alter a lot of driving shots simply by virtue of being teheir and being tall; Ohio State was absolutely destroyed in this manner, when combined with poor outside shooting. On the other hand, a quick player used to slicing through giants can make life difficult for the Heels, as we saw in Kentucky. It doesn't help that Rick Barnes likes the same up-tempo style of play as Roy Williams; the Texas defense can get back quickly and force UNC into a half-court set, while a quick offense can get the ball to the hoop before the Heels are fully back in position. Not that positioning is everything. I'd expecting a few more blocks on the run from Davis and Henson today.
It's Davis and Henson I'm most curious about in this game. Davis has yet to truly go off and have a Hansbroughesque performance, and he's due. Henson finally clicked and was a rebound away from his first double-double in seventeen minutes against Presbyterian, but is still a slender newbie in desperate need of a sandwich. If those two and Thompson can step up and play their games against the Texas front line, I have faith that the Heels backcourt, even sans Dexter Strickland, can handle the Longhorns' smaller guards. That's a tall order for a young front line, however, and I'm not fully convinced the Heels can pull it off.
The other X-factor, of course, is Jerry Jones' Taj MaTexas, a cavernous dome hosting it's first basketball game. Anyone watching the Heels' struggles in the Final Fours of the nineties knows how badly a football stadium can throw off an outside shooter. Neither team has a lot of experience in the backcourt. Whichever team solves the riddle of outside shooting in a dome is going to have a significant advantage. (Also whichever team scores more points will most likely win. I swear the insights I have on this game are unbelievably penetrating.)