Carolina's strengths play into Villanova's weaknesses

Villanova loosens up before practice. Villanova practice at Sprint Center,Kansas City, MO. on March 21, 2013 ( RON CORTES / Staff Photographer )
Villanova loosens up before practice. Villanova practice at Sprint Center,Kansas City, MO. on March 21, 2013 ( RON CORTES / Staff Photographer )
Posted: March 23, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - College basketball teams fight all season to get to the NCAA tournament and, for the lucky ones that make it, that's when they start to find out how lucky they really are.

Villanova, which needed some good fortune and a few nice upsets to get this far, has run into what every coach fears at this time of year - an unpromising matchup.

It isn't that North Carolina, which the Wildcats play Friday evening to open their tournament, is a powerhouse or even in the same class as some of the better Tar Heels teams. Carolina hasn't been very consistent defensively and isn't very strong around the basket. The eighth seed is as low as North Carolina has ever been placed since seeding began in 1979.

So what's the big problem?

The big problem is that the two things Carolina is best at - making three-point shots and creating turnovers - happen to be two things that play directly into Villanova weaknesses. The Wildcats were second-to-last in Big East games in three-point defense, and they also happen to be very sloppy with the basketball at times. The 25 turnovers against Louisville pressure that helped end Villanova's conference tournament were a little out of the ordinary, but Carolina is also a guard-oriented team that harasses the perimeter effectively.

That's a bad matchup. Not an impossible task, but a bad matchup.

"It does not look good when you look at the stats, that we turn the ball over and they score off turnovers. When they get a turnover, they're gone," coach Jay Wright said. "And they do hit a lot of threes. I think we have to play our game, but the part of our game we haven't done a good job on is defending the three-point line. Some of that is our team speed."

Wright said the Wildcats would not alter their philosophy in defending three-point shots. Most of the time Villanova uses a rotation to the ball side of the court. The Wildcats could try the simple method of just stationing their defenders farther out and daring Carolina to beat them on the inside. They could switch assignments on every screen, which they don't like to do to avoid mismatches.

According to Wright, the Wildcats will stick with what they do but try to do it better. We'll see. Coaches don't like to tell the opposition their plans ahead of time. What we know is that Carolina takes an average of 20 three-point shots per game, makes 7.5 of them, and averages 77 points per game. Villanova has a word for games in which it allows 77 points. Losses.

Carolina has four effective three-point shooters and plays what usually looks like a four-guard offense. P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock are the best long-range shooters, but freshman Marcus Paige and junior Leslie McDonald are also dangerous on the perimeter. Pay too much attention to the shooters and 6-foot-9 James Michael McAdoo, the only real Tar Heels inside presence, can do some damage if left with one-on-one coverage.

So, Wright and his staff have some difficult choices to make as they decide between having the Wildcats play their style or keeping North Carolina from playing the style it prefers. Sometimes the two things fit together, but not this time.

"You always have to judge if we can play our game or do we have to prevent them from playing their game. That's why matchups are so important in this tournament," Wright said. "If you get a matchup where it's a pretty easy pregame decision that you want to play your game, that's what a good matchup is."

This decision isn't an easy one. Villanova defends the rim very well, which is useful in the rugged Big East, and usually would be a plus against North Carolina, which traditionally plays an inside-out game through its big men. Not this season, though.

"Who do we get in the NCAA tournament? The only Carolina team that has ever relied strictly on the three-point line. That's the way it works," Wright said. "We feel like we've got a good scheme. We just feel like we have not executed it through the year."

(By comparison, La Salle, the other Philadelphia-area team that made it to the Sprint Center, has a good matchup against Kansas State, which is an outside shooting team similar to Boise State. The Explorers have the quickness and the temperament to defend the perimeter ferociously. K-State is a four seed and won 27 games this season, so winning would be an upset, but at least La Salle can play a comfortable style. It can't hurt.)

"A good matchup doesn't mean the other team isn't good," Wright said. "And a bad matchup doesn't mean you can't still win. Regardless of your seed, you have that decision as a coach, and it's easier when you have a chance to play your game. The further you get in the tournament, the harder that decision becomes."

And, perhaps unfortunately for Villanova, getting a bad matchup early can make worrying about decisions later in the tournament not very important at all.

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