CHARLOTTE — If you ask Isaiah Thomas, this is the stuff dreams are made of. North Carolina and basketball, that is.
It’s basically every kid’s dream school, Thomas said. I mean, to go to North Carolina or play against them, it’s legendary.
The Tar Heels frontline has been a nightmare for most. Washington will try to weave its way through, over and around the troika of talented towers North Carolina will throw at them Sunday at 9:15 a.m. on CBS in the third round of the East Region in the NCAA Tournament.
Carolina lines up big, bigger and biggest. Sade-smooth Harrison Barnes plays small forward at 6-foot-8. Next is shot-blocking John Henson, who, at 6-10, appears to be a pair of thin shoulders and a cranium atop two pipe cleaners. Tyler Zeller is seven feet tall. Combined, you have what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski labeled Saturday as good a frontline as there is in the country.
Other than that, no problem.
When seventh-seeded Washington (24-10) faces second-seeded North Carolina (27-7) Sunday, the height is the crux of the issues for the Huskies. Lets take a look at North Carolina:
Coach: Roy Williams
Ol Roy uses phrases like daggum and other midwestern statements that are not common coachspeak. Saturday, he joked of his dislike for Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, relating a story about how the two went for ice cream last year and Romar claimed to be cash-free when it came time to pay. Romar countered by saying Williams begged him to go and offered to pay.
We’re going to try to run the ball, Williams said. Lorenzo and his club will try to run the ball because that’s one of their strengths. They average 83 a game. We average not as much as I would like, but (a little below) 80. I think we’ll see the basketball go up and down. We go up and down quite a lot.
Likely starting five:
Kendall Marshall: Since taking over the point guard role, Marshall has steadied the Tar Heels. The stocky left-hander is 6-foot-3 and averages six points and six assists. He has started 17 games for North Carolina, helping drag them out of the midseason muck. Marshalls scoring is limited, and he turns the ball over 2.4 times per game. Thomas will square up Marshall. I know hes a great player, Marshall said of Thomas. Hes definitely their motor. They go as he goes. If were able to slow him down or make him uncomfortable, I think it will help our team.
Dexter Strickland: The other starter at guard is a 6-3, 180-pound sophomore who played his first NCAA Tournament game Friday. He averages 7.3 points per game. Hes a poor three-point shooter with a mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.41-1. Whoever the starting shooting guard for Washington is will deal with Strickland.
Harrison Barnes: The top recruit in the country, the 6-8 freshman can drive, shoot midrange shots, shoot threes, score on the break. He was born to score, Williams said.
He averages 15.3 points per game and a solid 5.9 rebounds. His assist-to-turnover ratio is .74. Not good. His three-point shooting fluctuates. Hes been 4-for-5 in a game, and 1-for-8. He shoots 33.7 percent from behind the three-point line. Washingtons Justin Holiday has another chore on his hands. I think I’ll have to make sure I’m there when he catches the ball, Holiday said. Probably even limit him some touches. Do that to the best of my ability. He’s still going to get the ball. When he does, contest every shot he shoots. That’s all I can pretty much do.
John Henson: Go-go gadget arms and legs for Henson. He averages 11.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. Krzyzewski called Henson the the most disruptive defensive player in the country. Henson says shot-blocking is a natural gift, which seems apparent if you grow to be 6-10 with extremely long arms. He also says people try to come at him without a plan. I think sometimes they come in and might try too hard and that hurts them at the end of the day. Matthew Bryan-Amaning will for once lose the wingspan battle. How he deals with Henson will be a key.
Tyler Zeller: The seven-foot junior averages 15 points and 7.1 rebounds. Hes the more skilled of the duo. He also does not like contact in the post. Zeller has a nice turnaround from about eight feet. He can also post on the block or move to the elbow. He played for Romar last season on the USA Select Team. Darnell Gant and Aziz NDiaye will deal with him.
Former Tar Heel Eric Montross take (Montross is now a color analyst for the Tar Heels Sports Network and knows a little something about enormous frontlines):
The great thing about the tournament is, that you come in and if you try to change too much, youre in trouble. I think its all about making sure youre very efficient in your own style of play. As far as Carolina goes, the things that are most important to them is keeping the turnovers low and the fact they have to convert some outside shots. (Friday night North Carolina received) 84 points of production between Henson, Zeller and Barnes. That was huge, but our perimeter was empty with our perimeter shooting. We cant have that kind of imbalance against the Huskies.
When Carolina plays its best basketball, its when everybody scores a little bit instead of a few guys scoring a lot.
I think Washington is that same style (as Fridays opponent Long Island University), only much better. The way (LIU) got in passing lanes yesterday, we kind of short-armed some passes that created those turnovers. I think that really for us, turnovers are the linchpin.
Rebounds, the turnovers, its not rocket science, its basketball.
(Friday) night the height was a real issue. When you look at how our guys play with contact … Zeller, if you had asked me that early in the season, I would say it really affected his game. Hes gotten much better at that. John Henson, if you put a body on a shot blocker offensively and get into their legs and their body, theyre not nearly as effective. I think certainly Hensons not a guy who just sits in the post and looks forward to banging, banging and banging. But hes been effective (despite) not loving that aspect of the game.
What North Carolina does well: Play in transition, challenge at the rim, rebound. Its little surprise North Carolina is the No. 1 rebounding team in the country. Its also the only team in the tournament to score more than 100 points. Much like Washington, the opposition wants to stay out of a transition matchup, so playing up-tempo is welcome and rare. We havent faced it a lot because usually they know were good at it, Zeller said.
What North Carolina does not do well: Shoot threes, take care of the ball. As Montross alluded to, North Carolinas perimeter effort Friday night was meek. It was 3-for-17, slightly worse than the Huskies poor showing against Georgia, from behind the three-point line. The Heels shoot just 32.8 percent as a team from behind the three-point line. Only Leslie McDonald and Barnes have attempted more than 100 3s. Thats essentially McDonalds role. Of his 206 field goal attempts, 126 have been three-pointers.
How Washington wins: Turn North Carolina over, makes 3s. This high-possession game will be candy for both teams, but Washington needs extra possessions and at least 10 made 3s to counter the inevitable offensive rebounds it will allow. Three of the five Carolina starters average more turnovers than assists. Williams said it Saturday: The biggest thing, stop the silly turnovers. You just can’t turn the ball over the manner, the types of turnovers that we had were just silly. We can’t do that. It will be interesting to see if Washington has the chutzpah to trap. It has a depth advantage since Carolina plays just six or seven guys more than 10 minutes.
How North Carolina wins: Demolish Washington on the glass, Barnes gets hot. Repeated tip-ins did in Long Island Friday against North Carolina. But the Blackbirds tallest players is 6-foot-7. Washington has length that is much closer to North Carolinas, but still cant match the Tar Heels. Barnes carried North Carolina in the ACC Tournament with a 40-point night. He has become progressively better through the season.
Prediction: Too big, too talented. Washington was able to get larger during the offseason, but North Carolina presents post play that overwhelms everyone in the country not named Duke. Thanks to Marshall, North Carolina will hang onto the ball just enough that its offensive rebounding will become too much. Tar Heels 89, Huskies 80.