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NCAA Championship Preview: #1 UNC vs #2 Villanova

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA Championship: North Carolina vs Villanova, 9:19 PM, TBS or TNT

Welcome the the final game of the 2016 season and the end of the careers of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James.

Facing Villanova's defense

The real takeaway from Villanova's wanton destruction of Oklahoma on Saturday wasn't the 70% shooting. That was impressive but not likely sustainable for a second straight game. The real story was the Wildcat defense which was a factor in how well the team shot versus the Sooners. Oklahoma had 17 turnovers for a turnover rate of 27.0%. Those miscues created easy baskets for Villanova on top of the Wildcats lighting it up in the half court. The defensive turnover rate has been key in Villanova's run to the title game. The Wildcats' defensive turnover rate is 20.6 on the season and in the NCAA Tournament it's been that or better four times. In the win over Kansas in the regional final, it was 24.6.

The Tar Heels have a nice and tidy turnover rate of 15.3 and Joel Berry's personal TO% of 14.6 is second best for a Roy Williams point guard at UNC bested only by Ty Lawson's 14.4 in 2009. UNC's ability to take care of the ball will be quite necessary to avoid giving a good offensive team even easier opportunities to score in transition.

The difficulty for UNC in facing Villanova will be the Wildcats pressure and penchant for throwing different defensive looks. As Luke Winn noted against Kansas the Wildcats would change defenses regularly between man and zone with positions 1-4 switching on screens.  Villanova also isn't afraid to spring a trap at any given time if an opposing player puts themselves in a bad position. Good decisions and smart basketball will be imperatives against a defense that can make you pay.

UNC's depth and versatility

UNC's biggest advantage this season has been its quality depth and ability to trot out different personnel combinations based on the situation. On the former, defending UNC can be tough because it's not just one or two or even three players that can do damage. On any given night, UNC has eight players who can make a difference at key moments of the game. Isaiah Hicks is well documented as coming off the bench to give the Tar Heels an offensive boost. Theo Pinson's play versus Notre Dame was critical in turning back an Irish rally and Nate Britt is capable of a 4-5 possession run of positive play spelling Marcus Paige or Nate Britt.

As for the personnel, UNC's ability to go big or small could be key in a game of this nature. Villanova doesn't play two bigs and Kris Jenkins has the ability to pull Brice Johnson away from the basket. If UNC's two big lineup is ineffective, the Tar Heels can go small to match-up. Roy Williams will still want to keep two big men on the floor as much as possible to exploit that advantage but if the small lineup is effective, UNC can use it.

In terms of depth, both teams play eight players regularly with Roy Williams using Joel James for a ninth. If the Tar Heels get the desired tempo it could impact the Wildcats but ultimately it probably won't be an issue.


On Saturday when UNC needed a big shot, Paige hit a three then Johnson followed with a dunk to stem a Syracuse run and push the lead back to 12. In the ACC Championship it was Paige's personal seven point run that keep UNC in the game and against Indiana his four threes to open the game set the tone for a huge offensive outing. Johnson took over the game against Providence and in the regional final returned to the game following a technical foul to hit shots and grab rebounds as the Tar Heels closed out Notre Dame. And all season long when if it wasn't Paige or Johnson it was Joel Berry showing the toughness critics said UNC lacked.

Those moments over the recent 10 game winning streak have been stark illustrations of UNC's ability to respond in tight games. If you go down the list of games starting with the Senior Night win over Syracuse, UNC has found ways to answer when the opposing teams make a run. This capability was hit or miss at times during the season. It showed up versus Kansas State, Maryland and Miami but was missing against Northern Iowa, Texas and the first Duke game.

In the months of March and April this team has found that extra something, a profound confidence that no matter the situation, they can respond or simply drop the hammer with a big offensive run to win the game. This was something UNC teams in 2005 and 2009 knew how to do and over the past 10 games, UNC has found that ability as well.

In a game that portends to be a nip and tuck affair, UNC may need that ability to trade blows then find a way to land the winning one to grab a sixth NCAA title.

UNC 83 Villanova 79