North Carolina is prepared to play a low-scoring game. Wisconsin probably has to.
In a matchup of teams with contrasting styles, the team that wins the battle of tempo will likely still have a chance to win a national championship as the top-seeded Tar Heels and No. 6 seed Badgers meet in the Syracuse Regional final.
With what is widely considered the nation’s most talented team, North Carolina usually has no trouble scoring points. The Tar Heels lead the nation with 88.4 points per game, shoot nearly 50 percent from the field, and outscore their opponents by 18.5 points per game.
Wisconsin specializes in slowing teams down.
The Badgers have had previous success against teams that prefer a faster pace. They held Maryland to 64 points, regional semifinalist Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 37 and Alabama to 62, winning all three games.
“We’ve played teams that like up-tempo, like to push the ball,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Other teams we’ve seen want to do that. It’s a matter of can they, will they, and it’s our job to stop them.”
Wisconsin limits opponents to 59.4 points per game and 42.1 percent shooting. After holding top-ranked Illinois to 54 points while losing the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers have allowed an average of just 56.7 points in their three NCAA tournament games.
However, Wisconsin has had a favorable road, beating a No. 11 seed, a No. 14 and a No. 10. Nothing about Sunday’s game looks easy.
North Carolina wasn’t nearly as dominant as it was in the first two rounds, but Friday’s 67-66 victory over Villanova was impressive for what the Tar Heels had to overcome to get it.
The Tar Heels quickly found themselves behind by double digits after Villanova’s red-hot start. Once they made up that deficit, they had to survive foul trouble to point guard Raymond Felton, who eventually fouled out late in the game.
“We all just hung in there and stuck together,” reserve Melvin Scott said. “We just found a way. It wasn’t coaching, it was us. We did it.”
The victory likely helped the Tar Heels prepare for the Badgers. North Carolina won even though it was held more than 20 points below its season average, and 27 below the 94 points per game it scored in its first two NCAA tournament victories.
“Coach has been telling us all year that all of our games aren’t going to be blowouts,” said Rashad McCants, who scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half Friday. “We have to get prepared for grind-out games where it’s not going to be an 80-point game, it’s going to be a 60-point game, and we have to find a way to win.”
The Badgers probably know that one good half won’t be good enough against this team from Tobacco Road.
Wisconsin shot just 39 percent and scored only 21 points in the first half against North Carolina State on Friday. Trailing by nine points, the Badgers regrouped at halftime and dominated the second half, opening with a 26-7 run to take control. They outscored the Wolfpack 44-26 and shot 58.3 percent in the final 20 minutes to win 65-56.
That victory showcased the kind of defense and rebounding needed to beat North Carolina. The Badgers forced the Wolfpack to miss 27 of their final 38 shots and outrebounded them 35-21.
The Badgers say they won’t sacrifice any aspects of their game in an effort to prevent the Tar Heels from getting out in transition.
“Just because we’re getting back doesn’t mean we can’t go to the boards, it doesn’t mean we can’t be patient,” forward Mike Wilkinson said. “We’re still going to go to the boards, take good shots, be patient and get what we want.”
The winner advances to the Final Four for the first time since both teams made it in 2000.
This is the eighth time a No. 1 seed plays a No. 6 in a regional final. The No. 1 seeds are 5-2 and have won three straight. The last victory by the sixth-seeded team came in 1992 when Michigan, in the freshman season of the “Fab Five”, beat Ohio State in overtime.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Wisconsin - F Alando Tucker (14.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg), F Zach Morley (7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F Wilkinson (14.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), G Sharif Chambliss (7.5 ppg, 2.8 apg), G Clayton Hanson (6.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg). North Carolina - F Jawad Williams (13.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), F McCants (15.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg), C Sean May (16.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg), G Felton (12.5 ppg, 6.9 apg), G Jackie Manuel (5.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Wisconsin - At-large bid, Big Ten; beat No. 11 Northern Iowa 57-52, first round; beat No. 14 Bucknell 71-62, second round; beat No. 10 North Carolina State 65-56, regional semifinals. North Carolina - At-large bid, Atlantic Coast Conference; beat No. 16 Oakland 96-68, first round; beat No. 9 Iowa State 92-65, second round; beat No. 5 Villanova 67-66, regional semifinals.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Wisconsin - 16-9, 11 years. North Carolina - 85-36, 37 years.