Sunday, March 25, 2012

Midwest Regional Final: The Tale Of Two Clunkers?

THE POINT GUARDS (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer)
Many Tar Heel fans may have low expectations as North Carolina faces Kansas in today’s regional final.  Inundated by the experts in the media and blogosphere who maintain North Carolina can’t return to the Final Four without star point guard Kendall Marshall in their current semi-comatose condition, who can blame them?

But a closer look reveals that the team from Chapel Hill still features five future NBA players (Barnes, Henson, Marshall, McAdoo and Zeller) and the key questions remaining are “how many of them will play,” and "can they get their groove back?"  

While one would expect a classic match-up between these two traditional basketball powers, today’s game could be a plodding war of attrition between two wounded veteran teams.  Which one is going to snap out of it’s Friday funk and look like the 30-win teams that they both are?

If both teams play like they did in the Sweet Sixteen, this will be an ugly Big East-style game.  First one to 55 wins.

Marshall's wrist injury has changed the focus of a game that could have been billed "The Rematch."  The Tar Heels and Kansas met in the 2008 Final Four with Kansas using a massive first-half run to roll to a stunning 84-66 blowout. The Jayhawks went on to defeat Memphis in overtime claiming on that their first national championship since 1988.

The defeat stung North Carolina so badly that its trio of would-be NBA draft picks — Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington — all returned. They cut down the nets the following season in Detroit after dismantling all of their Big Dance foes.

UNC’s M.A.S.H. unit has moved the national spotlight.  Marshall's well-publicized wrist injury caused him to sit on the bench in a suit for the Regional Semifinal along with already injured (and well-dressed) Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland.  Question is, what will he be wearing on Sunday and   can he play (effectively)?

HANSBROUGH AND GREEN CIRCA 2008 (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Kansas has all their key players, but the Jayhawks’ game looks to be a little under the weather. 

Ol’ Roy’s former team is 30-6 and among the best teams in the country, but March hasn’t been all that kind.  Kansas lost to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament and then defeated an over matched Detroit team by 15 in the first round of the Big Dance.

The Jayhawks then advanced by defeating Purdue and N.C. State by a total of three points.  It is safe to say they easily could have lost either game.   

Kansas fans will counter that Carolina was lucky to survive Ohio.

They were and they weren’t.  

THOMAS ROBINSON (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
UNC’s 24 turnovers were something of an anomaly caused by the match ups created with the smaller, quicker Bobcats.  Tyler Zeller contributed six of those turnovers and that alone is an odd statistic. 

Had the game been a high-scoring, fast-paced affair the turnover number would have seemed more likely, but it wasn’t.  It was a slow-paced game well-suited to the Marshall-less Heels.  If only Ol’ Roy could convince his players of that in spite of the fact that the Heels will run fewer "offensive sets" with White behind the wheel.

Against Kansas, with or without Marshall, the Tar Heels need to defend the perimeter better. Their habit of sagging in and leaving shooters open beyond the three-point line almost cost them the game against Ohio.  Finally, in overtime, the UNC defenders matched up all over the court and the Bobcats three-point barrage came to a halt. 

TYSHAWN TAYLOR (Doug Persinger/Getty Images)
On the other hand, Kansas made exactly one three-pointer against N.C. State and six against Purdue. 

Kansas played poorly in it’s wins against the Wolfpack and the Boilermakers.  Simply, put, they easily could have lost either game.  

The Jayhawks’ point guard, Tyshawn Taylor, while unhurt, has had a rough tournament so far logging six points and five turnovers against the Wolfpack.  The entire team scored two baskets the last seven minutes of their Sweet Sixteen win.

However, Taylor will be a challenge for Stillman White on both ends of the floor just like Ohio’s D.J. Cooper was.  That issue will be the same even if Marshall plays.  It’s difficult to tell how good a defender the ACC assist leader really is since his primary directive on defense seems to be “don’t get in foul trouble.”  So, White really isn’t that much of a downgrade, and, in short spells, Reggie Bullock seems to be able to shut down any player he guards.

If North Carolina sticks to the game plan which, no doubt, will be to get the ball inside and score points in the paint while getting the Kansas bigs -- Jeff Whitey and Thomas Robinson --  in foul trouble, they remain a formidable foe.  If they run up and down the court and shoot jump shots, it’s anybody’s guess.

OL' ROY (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer)
Finally, Harrison Barnes, in all likelihood will shoot better.  Against, Ohio, the All-ACC sophomore missed 13 of 16 shots.  If he makes three or four more, the game never gets anywhere near overtime.  Barnes sleepy style is exasperating, but he does quietly score 17.4 a game.  

His resume suggested he is clutch in end-game situations, but if it comes down to a final shot, Williams will give Bullock some thought this time around.  Just the same, if Barnes returns to his norm, North Carolina is a much harder to beat.

In the end, whether-or-not the Tar Heels can utilize Kendall Marshall isn’t nearly as important as playing good defense and sticking to the pound-it-inside game plan.  If Ol’Roy can convince his players to follow that plan while re-establishing some offensive rhythm, a trip to New Orleans is not out of the question. 

Stay tuned. 

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