Cowboys Stadium | Arlington, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN
For the second time in the last three years, Rick Barnes has led his Texas Longhorns to a perfect 9-0 start. Texas has yet to truly be tested, winning those first nine games by an average margin of 32.7 points. That all changes today.
The Longhorns square off with the defending National Champions this afternoon in the first-ever basketball game held at the giant Cowboys Stadium in Arlington Texas. While both schools have cash incentives built into their contracts to reward them for drawing crowd as big as 75,000, most observers expect less than 40,000 in the seats. Regardless of how many basketball fans make their way into JerryWorld this afternoon, it will be a historic day.
Although the Tar Heels are fresh off another national title, Roy Williams’ team is still finding its way early in the season. North Carolina lost four starters from last year’s team, including Tyler Hansborough and point guard Ty Lawson. The new-look Tar Heels are incredibly young, boasting a highly talented five-man recruiting class, and have a very deep frontcourt that could be the best in the nation.
By the numbers
That excellent North Carolina frontcourt means that the Heels don’t push the ball up and down the floor quite as much as they used to. Of course, that’s not saying much when you consider just how fast last year’s UNC team played. This year, the “slower” style of Tar Heel basketball is still the 25th-quickest in the nation, with an average of over 74 possessions in each of their games.
When North Carolina isn’t scoring easy points in the transition game or on the secondary break, they love pounding the ball down low to their big men. Nearly 64% of their points come from within the arc, good enough for fourth nationally in that metric.
Oddly enough, their free-throw rate isn’t sky-high as a result. The FTR measures how often teams head to the line in relation to field goals they attempt per game. North Carolina’s FTR is just a tad over 38%, which actually places them just outside the top third of the country. By comparison, the Longhorns boast an FTR of 46 percent.
The number which could be most important in this afternoon’s game is the turnover margin. So far this year, North Carolina has actually turned the ball over more often than their opponent, albeit just barely. The Tar Heels have a negative 0.3 turnover differential per game this season, a number that stems largely from their massive early-season struggles with the ball. While the youngsters have settled down quite a bit in recent weeks, the quick tempo and inexperience can still lead to a fair share of miscues for the Heels.
Meet the Tar Heels
Without a doubt, the toughest match-up for Texas is big man Deon Thompson. The 6’9”, 245-pound senior is not only a beast in the paint, but is a handful off the dribble and can hit spot-up jumpers from anywhere on the floor. While he’s not going to shoot a ton of threes, Thompson has still proven that he has the perimeter shot in his arsenal. The threat of his jump shot keeps defenses honest, so when opponents play him tighter outside, Thompson uses an explosive first step to blow by them and get to the rim.
Thompson is also going to give Texas a lot to handle on the glass. He is averaging eight boards per game to go along with his team-leading 17 points per contest, and his offensive rebounding rate is actually 66th-best in the country according to stat guru Ken Pomeroy.
In the backcourt, Marcus Ginyard is the steady leader of the team. After missing nearly the entire championship season due to injury, the senior guard used a medical redshirt to return for one more season. Unfortunately, he is struggling with another foot injury and is listed as probable for today’s game.
Ginyard is best-known for his suffocating, lock-down defense, and is often found harassing the opposing ballhandlers well beyond the perimeter. He worked hard on his jump shot all off-season, and it’s already paying off. While North Carolina isn’t a team that takes a ton of three-pointers, Ginyard is one player opponents hate to see shooting from behind the arc. So far this year, he is hitting at a 44% clip from long range and is averaging over 10 points per game.
Although not a senior like Thompson and Ginyard, big man Ed Davis is also a huge contributor for the Heels. Just a sophomore, he still hasn’t even completely developed into his 6’10” frame, but is already dominating opponents down low. He fights for every single rebound, and currently leads the team with more than nine boards per game. Davis is also an intimidating presence on defense, swatting nearly three shots per contest.
In the backcourt, sophomore Larry Drew II has huge shoes to fill at the point guard position. Following the departure of Lawson to the NBA, the youngster who averaged just nine minutes and 1.4 points per game in 2008-09 was handed the keys to the offense. No pressure.
For the most part, Drew has responded very well. He’s averaging nine points per game and has improved dramatically over the first month of the season after struggling with turnovers in his first few games. Drew is very quick with the basketball and can weave in and out of traffic to reach the paint. But if teams think they can sag back to try to keep the speedster in front of them, they quickly discover how deadly accurate Drew is from long range. On the year, the guard has connected on 42.3% of his three-point attempts.
Swingman Will Graves is the fifth man in the starting rotation for Coach Williams. With so many other talented players on the floor, Graves isn’t asked to do too much, and his stats are rather pedestrian as a result. What he does provide to the team, though, is a heady player who can run the floor and attack defenders off the dribble from the perimeter. Don’t be surprised if Graves is the one coming up with a key bucket late in the game while Texas is focused on all of the other stars.
Off the bench, giant seven-footer Tyler Zeller provides quite the spark in the paint. Although he plays just 19 minutes a game, Zeller is still the third-highest scorer on the team with 9.2 points per game. Named “Mr. Basketball” for the state of Indiana in 2008, the tall, thin center can run the floor incredibly well for his size and fits perfectly into the up-tempo style of UNC. In the half-court game, he provides a huge target on the blocks and his solid turnaround jumper can make him seem unstoppable when he gets the ball down low.
Freshman John Henson started playing his high school ball at Round Rock, just a few hours south of JerryWorld. After transferring to a prep school in Florida, he chose North Carolina from a long list of suitors that included the Texas Longhorns. Henson is 6’10” and has an incredible wingspan, but still has the body of a freshman. He’s wiry and lacks the muscle to bang around down low with experienced college forwards and centers. But Henson is incredibly athletic and agile, so he’s able to pull those defenders out away from the basket and beat them off the dribble.
Dexter Strickland is another of the talented freshman on the Carolina roster, and has been blossoming as the backup point guard behind Drew II. Like the starting point, Strickland is ridiculously fast and can speed past the defense in transition and off the perimeter. But the youngster is still making his share of freshman mistakes, which have limited him to just over thirteen minutes per game. Strickland is hampered by a hamstring injury that has him listed as questionable for today’s game. If he does play, the Horns can’t afford to lose him on defense, as he’s showcased a very solid jump shot early in the year.
The excellent freshman class at Carolina also includes twin brothers Travis and David Wear from Mater Dei in California. The 6’10” freshmen can score inside, but they also are very impressive shooting the ball from the midrange and even beyond the perimeter. Defensively, they often seem uncomfortable if pulled too far outside the paint, but when they are able to camp out near the rim, their length is invaluable.
Keys to the game
This afternoon’s contest is an intriguing match-up of similar styles, with both teams able to run the floor or beat up their opponents in a half-court game with their solid frontcourts. Vegas thinks the Longhorns are six-point favorites on this semi-home court, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see this one finish even closer.
For Texas, the most important thing is to control the paint. In their loss to Syracuse, the Tar Heels were absolutely stymied by a 2-3 zone that kept them from scoring inside and forced them to take a ton of perimeter shots which mostly resulted in misses. Even against an over-matched North Carolina Central team, the Tar Heels seem perturbed by the zone and were content to wait around the perimeter when they couldn’t attack the paint. If the Longhorns can keep Carolina from getting looks inside, they will have a much better shot at the win.
Texas also needs to force mistakes by the young Tar Heels. North Carolina has turned it over at least 19 times in four of their games, so the quick hands of Dogus Balbay and Avery Bradley on defense could lead to turnovers and easy points for the Horns. There is no easier way to slow down a high-octane team than taking the ball away from them.
In addition, the Longhorn guards and swingmen have to make sure they don’t force things inside. With their stable of tall, lengthy defenders, the Tar Heels love it when opponents try to drive all the way to the rim, or take their time trying to make moves on the blocks. The typical result is a swatted shot that ends up somewhere in the 15th row. What Carolina’s defense is susceptible to is good ball movement and drive-and-dish attacks. If Texas can work the ball around and make the tall defenders react, they will earn many more open looks.
Finally, Texas must take advantage of the freebies. Neither of these teams is very good at shooting free throws, with the Heels making just 65% of their attempts and the Longhorns sinking an even-more embarrassing 61 percent. This game has all the makings of a nail-biter, so every single point is crucial. Leaving those points sitting at the line will certainly leave one of these teams saying “What if?” tomorrow morning.