The great thing about the NCAA Tournament is that ever year it brings to your attention at least one school you've never heard of. For me this year, that school is Long Island University, a team people expected to be at best middle-of-the-road in their conference, that has won 21 of their last 22 games, the last being an overtime squeaker on their home court to secure the Northeast Conference championship on their home court. The Blackbirds are the UNC of the NEC; this game will be fun.
I'm serious about the comparison, too Both teams play up-tempo ball – LIU is 4th in the nation to UNC's 21 – and crash the offensive boards hard. They both rely on freshmen point guards to get the ball, get a lot of minutes from the bench, and prefer to get the ball inside both for points and to exploit a lopsided advantage between fouls drawn and fouls committed. In fact, no team in the country had a higher ratio of free throw attempts to shots from the field. And ironically, the Blackbirds are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country.
The key to Long Island's resurgence has been the return of Julian Boyd, who was out all last season with heart issues. Boyd leads the team in scoring and rebounds, yet averages under 26 minutes a game, because no one plays extended minutes for LIU. The run an eight-man rotation, all of who average between 26.5 and 17.4 minutes a game. The point guard duties are split between freshman Jason Brickman, 16th in the country in assist rate, and C.J. Garner, a transfer from South Alabama. They can get a lot of scoring from the streaky but recently solid forward Jamal Olasewere, the most profligate shooter on the team, whose on a streak of three straight double-doubles.
What Long Island lacks is two things: height and defense. The tallest players on the team are 6'7" Olasewere and Kenny Onyechi; both point guards are 5'10". While Onyechi is a prolific shot blocker, it's no shock that the Blackbirds are at a disadvantage against taller players in the paint. Their defensive rebounding is poor, they don't generate turnovers and all they really do well when the other guy has the ball is defend the three and not foul. Neither is a big feature of UNC's offense; they should be able to pound it inside to Zeller and Henson over and over again.
LIU hasn't really faced a team this season that likes to run as much as they do, and Carolina's ability to get back on defense should stymie the Blackbirds, while the talent differential on the other side of the ball should absolutely obliterate this team. The only way this is a close game is if the Tar Heels continue to come out flat and listless like they did for three days in Greensboro. I can only assume they took the couple of days off to refocus themselves and get back to playing like they were in the closing weeks of the season. The games get considerably more difficult after this one, so a solid win here with succumbing to the temptation to look ahead is critical in getting this team on the way to Houston. The home crowd will help, and the opponent should make it easy, but UNC is still going to have to put the work in to get the win.