NCAA Tournament West Regional Semifinal: #4 North Carolina vs #1 Wisconsin, 7:47 PM, TBS
College basketball is a guard's game. Time and time again, teams that win national titles and make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament do so because they have great guard play. Earlier this week Marcus Paige said Nate Britt had been calling him "Kemba Walker" in reference to the Connecticut point guard that led the Huskies to the 2011 NCAA title. Last season point guard Shabazz Napier also led UConn to a national title as a #7 seed. As much as UNC depends on interior scoring, the truth of March is UNC is going to go as far as the guards can take them. Against Wisconsin, UNC's guards will need to match or be better than the Badgers backcourt.
This season UNC is 18-3 when Justin Jackson scores in double figures and 16-2 when both Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson hit that standard. While much attention will be given to Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and the health of Kenndy Meeks, UNC's best hope probably lies with getting highly productive games out of the backcourt. That means threes have to fall and also an aggressive Paige must get into the lane to score, draw fouls and set up his teammates. Paige prefers to be a point guard first but even when he chooses to make himself a bigger part of the offense early in the game it doesn't always pan out. Paige had eight shot attempts in the first half versus Arkansas on Saturday but only one fell. Paige actually took fewer shots in the second half but was more efficient going 4-6 and 3-3 from beyond the arc. UNC's chances in this game likely hinge on getting a more complete game from Paige and also Jackson.
The recent elevated play from the freshman has UNC looking like the team everyone thought they would be earlier in the season. All the preseason prognostications of UNC being a top ten team were predicated on Paige being Paige and Jackson being a significant upgrade from Leslie McDonald. For much of the season there have been flashes of that from Jackson but since the first loss at Duke, Jackson has been playing much closer to his potential hitting 14-35 from three and scoring 13.2 ppg over the past 11 games. Couple that with Paige being healthy and playing at the level he did last season, UNC is a different team.
The question is will it matter against a very good Wisconsin team. Wisconsin is Virginia in terms of pace but with a more efficient offense and size to match UNC's. Making matters more complicated for the Tar Heels, Kaminsky can play all over the court. He will draw the Tar Heel big men out of the post and is an excellent passer. Kaminsky is averaging 18.2 ppg and shooting 40.7% from three making him a difficult cover for whoever draws the assignment. Stopping Kaminsky and not fouling will be a tough task across the board for the UNC big men.
The other concern for UNC is Wisconsin's offensive balance coupled with a deliberate offense. The Badgers are disciplined and patient enough to work for the shot they want and are capable of making any shot on the floor. That will test UNC's defense as the Badgers have the ability to take advantage of the Tar Heels defensive rotations, especially if one is missed. Bronson Koenig is a 41% three point shooter with Sam Dekker(32%), Nigel Hayes(39%) and Josh Gasser(37%) also serving as significant threats. In short, Wisconsin has the weapons inside and out to make UNC pay for defensive breakdowns or mistakes in rotation.
Ultimately for UNC to win it will require a full 40 minutes of offensive consistency and the Tar Heels managing some stops on the defensive end against a team that is difficult to stop. It would also help if the Badgers decided to struggle a bit shooting the ball as they did against Oregon on Sunday. In the end, Wisconsin will simply be just better than UNC.
Wisconsin 71 UNC 65