UNC vs. Villanova: The matchup
ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz play-by-play, Clark Kellogg analyst
Tyler Hansbrough is the face of the team, and though his senior season wasn’t as good as his junior season, he still is one of the best players in the nation. He works extremely hard on both ends and is a master at drawing fouls. He has made the most free throws in NCAA history and is the leading scorer in ACC history. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s sneaky in the low post and knows how to score. Deon Thompson is a steady big man who is the fifth option on offense but still averages in double figures. Danny Green is a jack-of-all trades; he’s a better offensive player than you’d expect from someone who is his team’s fourth option, and he has 3-point range. He has a nice mid-range game, can handle the ball, is a good rebounder and was a member of the ACC’s all-defense team. Ed Davis is a great talent off the bench. He is tremendous on the boards – he is the Heels’ second-leading rebounder despite coming off the bench – and is a solid defender, but his offensive game still is developing.
The Tar Heels aren’t as deep as expected because of injuries and a suspension, but this team’s top six players are better than anybody else’s top six. This is an athletic group than excels in transition, thanks to Lawson, and the 3-point shooting ability of Lawson, Ellington and Green also makes the Heels effective in a half-court set. When the perimeter shots are falling, Hansbrough, Thompson and Davis become even more efficient in the paint. This truly is a pick-your-poison team: Do you worry about clogging the paint and letting the Heels shoot 3-pointers, or do you crowd them on the perimeter and make them funnel the ball inside?
A lack of defense was supposed to be – ahem – the Heels’ Achilles’ heel, but the defense against Oklahoma in the region final was excellent. This group has the athleticism to play lockdown defense but rarely does so. Physical guards who can get into the lane can hurt the Heels.
While North Carolina is in the Final Four, don’t expect the Heels to be content. This team was expected to win the national title. If it doesn’t, the season will have been a disappointment.
When star frontcourt players are discussed, Dante Cunningham too frequently is forgotten. He became one of the nation’s best forwards this season and is Villanova’s leading scorer and rebounder. He has a nice all-around offensive game, is efficient from 15 feet in and doesn’t take many bad shots. He’s a good interior defender, thanks to his quickness. Shane Clark has 3-point range – as he showed in the region final against Pitt – but he isn’t a guy the Wildcats count on to score. Instead, it’s his defense that gets him his minutes. He can guard three positions – big guards, small forwards and power forwards – and that defensive versatility makes him valuable. Antonio Pena started for more than half the season and is a physical presence in the low post. He’s not afraid to throw his weight around and is foul-prone. He plays because of his rebounding and defense, and any offense from him is gravy.
Villanova was somewhat overshadowed in the Big East this season, but all five starters returned from last season’s Sweet 16 team and Cunningham’s emergence has made the Wildcats dangerous.
Villanova goes a legit eight deep, and there is great athleticism and quickness among those eight. But while Villanova lacks size, it does not lack for a physical nature. This is a tough group. They’re hard to deal with on both ends of the court because they are both athletic and physical. In other words, they can run by you and also knock you on your backside.
While there might be a lack of height in the frontcourt, the Wildcats have a lot of interchangeable – and tall – parts on the perimeter. This is a savvy defensive group that looks to score in transition. But when they have to go to their half-court sets, they’re effective there, too, because of a solid group of guards. While Reynolds and Fisher are the main distributors, Stokes, Anderson and Redding also do a fine job in that facet of the game.
The perimeter matchups should be somewhat equal. The Redding-Anderson-Stokes trio matches up relatively well with Ellington and Green. Lawson is better than Reynolds, but here’s betting Reynolds can exploit Lawson some on defense and get into the lane consistently. It’s inside, with Hansbrough, Thompson and Davis, where UNC should really make some hay. Villanova’s lack of bulk inside will hurt. If Pena plays extended minutes because of his bulk, the Wildcats’ offense suffers. Watch UNC on the offensive boards; the Heels generally are excellent in that category. But Pitt is even better in that aspect of the game, and Villanova did a great job of limiting the Panthers’ second shots in the region final and ended up outrebounding them.
North Carolina should win this game because of its great inside-outside balance. To pull the upset, Villanova has to have its guards get into the lane, hit its 3-pointers, keep UNC off the offensive boards and get offense from someone up front in addition to Cunningham. Doable? Yes. Can the Wildcats do it? Doubtful.