NCAA 2nd Round: #1 UNC vs #9 Providence, 9:40 PM, TBS
UNC looks for a second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen but first need to dispatch Providence on Saturday night in Raleigh. Here are your focal points.
Return of the Defense?
You could argue the defense returned in the second half on Thursday as UNC held Florida Gulf Coast to an offensive efficiency of 88.0 after halftime as a sign that the Tar Heels had locked in. However the defensive rebounding still fell short with the Eagles collecting 42.3% of its own misses in the second half. UNC did a better job taking away the easy looks FGCU had been getting but didn't clean up the glass with much efficiency.
Providence is a different animal with two players who can put together nightmare games for UNC. Kris Dunn entered the season getting national hype as a potential All-American and even player of the year candidate. His numbers haven't quite reached that level but his numbers are solid nonethless. Dunn averages 16.0 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.4 rpg making him linchpin of Providence's offensive attack. He shoots 36.1% from three and isn't afraid to take the big shot. On the interior 6-9 Ben Bentil leads the team in scoring with 21.1 ppg and rebounding at 7.8 rpg. The combination of Dunn and Bentil along with 11.7 ppg and 6.9 rpg from Rodney Bullock make the Friars plenty dangerous in a high stakes NCAA Tournament game.
UNC came out with some rust versus FGCU then laid off the accelerator after taking an 11 point lead. The defense was out of sorts which allowed FGCU to shoot 61% in the first half. It is unlikely the Tar Heels make the same mistake twice. The defense should lock in as it did last weekend. Going against two capable offensive players like Dunn and Bentil the defense is they key.
Since Kennedy Meeks returned from his knee injury his effectiveness has very hit or miss. He scored 23 points versus NC State in Chapel Hill during his second game back. Since then he's only hit double figures three times. The rebounding is the real concern. Prior to the knee injury Meeks had eight rebounds or more five times in nine games and 10+ rebounds three times. Since he returned he has collected eight rebounds twice and double digit rebounds just once, versus Duke in Durham.
Granted some of Meeks' production is off because Brice Johnson has seized the role as UNC's primary interior offense weapon and is the best defensive rebounder of the Roy Williams era at UNC. Isaiah Hicks, when he stays out of foul trouble, is also cutting into Meeks' playing time. Still there is clearly something off with Meeks. He has always been a below the rim player but right now he is really playing below the rim.
There is noticeable frustration on the part of Meeks, his teammates and coach, especially after Thursday night when seemingly nothing went right for him. There is also a clear strain of hope with those same people that Meeks has a productive game ahead of him. While the source of Meeks' struggles are unclear what is clear is UNC still needs him. Johnson and Hicks can carry the load but UNC needs every player doing what they can to make a run to Houston. Perhaps Saturday night in Raleigh will be Meeks' chance to show he can do that.
Angry Tar Heels?
While there is concern about UNC having letdowns and that has been cause to not trust them as a Final Four contender, some of that analysis misses the point that the Tar Heels generally focus on games of great importance. After all, six losses by a total of 22 points, all to NCAA Tournament caliber teams would seem to indicate UNC is doing something right. The Tar Heels messing around with a #16 seed wasn't wholly unexpected even if the Eagles were troublesome for longer than anticipated. The encouraging part was the manner in which UNC decided opening the second half that the upset bid was over. And in case you need reminding of how that isn't necessarily automatic, ask Michigan State how the weather is in East Lansing today.
There was enough disappointment in the way the team player from the player side following the win over FGCU in the first round to think a different kind of response is coming on Saturday. UNC didn't treat Thursday's game as a loss but they didn't think it was anything to hold in high regard. The disappointment was evident and UNC this season has shown they respond to that sort of thing very well in the next game. Providence is a tough out but if UNC plays angry and focused the Tar Heels are headed to Philadelphia.
UNC 85 Providence 73