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#8 UNC vs Minnesota

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What: Puerto Rico Tip-Off Semifinals
Where: Coliseo de Puerto Rico, San Juan
When: Friday, November 19th, 8:30 PM
TV: ESPU(grumble...grumble)
Records: UNC 2-0, Minnesota 3-0

Now we will learn something.

There are some fairly interesting dynamics at work in this game which makes it a great test for a team that, last night, had us all thinking it was 2008 all over again. Playing back-to-back games always makes things dicey, especially in the early part of the season when everyone is still getting a feel for what they are doing. These "preseason" tournaments are great for fans because it gives us many great matchups and I think most of us are stoked about three UNC basketball games and a football game vs NC State all happening in a span of four days. Playing in back-to-back games is unusual because it only happens one other time and that is the ACC Tournament. As Harrison Barnes astutely pointed out last night, it is difficult to get too high or low on one game when another one is coming right behind it. The Heels have to re-focus and prepare for a tougher opponent.

That opponent will be Minnesota who is coached by former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. It was Smith's Wildcats who won the 1998 NCAA title which UNC could have won except the perimeter shooting decided not to make the trip to San Antonio. Smith got out of Lexington despite being somewhat successful because (1) UK fans are nuts and (2) UK fans are REALLY nuts. Smith has done an admirable job at Minnesota with the Golden Gophers making into the NCAA Tournament during the past two seasons. In both instances Minnesota lost in the first round as #10 and #11 seed.

Minnesota is going to provide a challenge for UNC in two key areas. The first is on the interior where Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Justin Knox will be tasked to handle Ralph Sampson III and Trevor Mbakwe. Yes, that Ralph Sampson. UNC has quite a bit of history with Sampson's father who is considered one of the best players in Virginia and ACC history. In case you were wondering UNC compiled a 6-4 mark vs Ralph Sampson from 1980-1983 with two of these wins being in the 1981 National Semifinal and 1982 ACC Championship. While this Sampson III is not his father, he is still a good players coming into this game averaging 18.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 4.0 bpg. Since we are dealing with early season stats, that block number might be a tad inflated but probably not much. Alongside Sampson is Mbakwe who has pulled over 10 boards per contest through three games while posting 14.0 ppg. After the game versus Hofstra where UNC dominated the interior, this will be vastly different.

The other difference will be one of pace. Minnesota has not ranked better than 195th in tempo according to Pomeroy during the past five years. In other words, they are a classic Big Ten school preferring to play it in the halfcourt. For this Minnesota team that means spending time trying to get the ball inside since the perimeter shooting has not impressed much thus far. The Gophers are shooting a collective 34% from beyond the arc on 52 attempts this season. Their most profilic three point shooter, Blake Hoffarber, is shooting 30%. I know, that probably means someone is due for a career shooting night from beyond the arc. Still, given the productivity of the Minnesota interior players and the lack of perimeter shooting it will be hard to fault a defense that gives up threes to focus on stopping the opposing frontcourt. Except that appears to be UNC's default mode at times.

If we assume the interior game ends up being a push, the way UNC wins this game is by winning the battle at the 1-3 spots and pushing the tempo. Minnesota is not a deep team. The five starters put in 27 or more minutes per game with three of those players over 30 minutes. Only two players off the Gopher bench see double digit minutes. Compare that to UNC where every player is under the 27 mpg mark and 10 players are seeing the court for double digits. In fact UNC's 50 bench points vs Hofstra should tell you all you need to know about UNC's ability to shuffle bodies in and still get some production. If UNC can impose their tempo, Minnesota is going to be in a world of hurt midway through the 2nd half which is a state we are accustomed to see UNC opponents in. Where this could turn ugly for UNC is if foul trouble puts Henson or Zeller or both out for significant chunks and UNC is forced to rely more on Knox and someone like Justin Watts vs a sizable frontline. And yes, the Sampson and Mbakwe are not lightweights so this will be a test for the thinner UNC frontcourt players.

Whatever the case with the matchups, UNC should enjoy a talent gap. The questions are ones of focus and consistency for a young team still getting it's collective feet wet together in live action. Minnesota is a veteran squad with a solid coach who can challenge UNC is vital areas. This is as good a test as UNC is going to see early and we can begin to gauge the kind team UNC is tracking towards being.

UNC 80 Minnesota 72