This is shaping up to be a rough week for Tar Heels basketball. First the loss to UNLV, then the injury reports on Harrison Barnes that have everyone on edge. And while Kentucky is already looking ahead to Saturday, Carolina has 7th-ranked Wisconsin to deal with first. At least the game is in Chapel Hill.
If you've watched basketball with any regularity over the last twenty years, you know the one constant in Wisconsin basketball. Their relentlessly slow pace. If anything, Bo Ryan's teams have gotten even slower in recent years. In 2009 and 2011 they averaged just under 60 possessions per game; this season, half their games have fallen below that mark. UNC in contrast has had at least 70 possessions in every game this year, and are averaging closer to 80.
Given the relatively few number of chances the Badgers get at the basket, the fact they score as much as they do is pretty impressive. Wisconsin has always been a perimeter-oriented team, but over the last few seasons they've become increasingly reliant on the three point shot. Only one team in D1-A gets a greater percentage of their points from beyond the arc, and as we saw with UNLV, that could be very difficult for Carolina.
A lot of those threes come straight from the point guard, Jordan Taylor. Taylor is vying with Kendall Marshall and a few others for the title of best point guard in the country. He hit almost 43% of his threes last season, and his doing better this year. Taylor also never turns the ball over and can quickly distribute the ball to any of the other shooters on this team. Dexter Strickland will almost certainly draw this defensive assignment, and it will be among his toughest of the season.
When Taylor isn't shooting the three, one of his teammates almost certainly is. The team's leading scorer so far is a sophomore point guard who only saw 45 minutes of playing time last year. Ben Brust has hit 19 of 39 threes, including a Wisconsin record seven against BYU. He's been very streaky in games, however, and could be a non-factor. A more reliable option is Josh Gasser, another sophomore who got considerably more playing time last season. Perimeter shooting was his weak point his freshman year, but he's hit a whopping 71% of his threes this season. True, he's picking his shots a little more carefully than Brust, but that's what you want from your best shooting guard.
A lot of people have walked away from the UNLV game, and the Kentucky tournament loss that ended last season, thinking that good perimeter shooting is all you need to beat the Tar Heels. And it does help; the best three-point shooting performances against the Heels last year were by Illinois (loss), Kentucky (loss), Washington (3 point win), and Clemson (OT win). But UNLV hit a lot of threes on second chances after offensive rebounds, and unless your three-point shooting is a couple of deviations from the mean, shooting alone won't cut.
The bad news is, Wisconsin is also very good at rebounding. They have the highest defensive rebounding rate in D1-A, and it's very distributed amongst the team. Five players average more than five boards a game, and the leading rebounder is a 6'6" swingman, Ryan Evans. You often see this with perimeter-oriented teams, but the key will be stopping the big men. That means containing Jared Berggren, the 6'10" center who often drifts out to the wing himself (he's attempted 21 threes). John Henson has the wingspan and willingness to follow him out onto the perimeter to neutralize him, and considering his teammate in the front court is 6'6" Mike Bruesewitz, the Heels should be able to muscle it inside on offense. We might see more of 6'11" freshman Frank Kaminsky, who has only averaged 8 minutes a game to date, simply because the Badgers don't have that many bodies to throw at Carolina.
Of course, neither did UNLV, but they managed quite well. Carolina needs to control the boards and not get frustrated by their smaller opponents. This will be a lot like playing Duke in the pre-Plumlee days, when Kyle Singler was the biggest opponent on the court and more comfortable taking the outside shot. UNC won most of those meetings, but not all of them, and the Tar Heels can easily lose this one, especially if Harrison Barnes isn't 100%. But a strong rebounding and defensive effort, plus a fast break offense should they get the turnovers they need from the Badgers, and UNC will win this game. Come out disjointed like they did in Vegas however, and this will be a very long week indeed.