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March 21, 2013

The Madness Begins

It finally has arrived once again.

The greatest tournament in sports, where anyone can win and where Cinderellas make a name for themselves.

North Carolina (24-10) is in the field of 68 of course once again, but the Tar Heels have a tough road through the first weekend as the No. 8 seed in the South region, with a potential matchup with Kansas looming on Sunday,

But first things first, the Tar Heels will have to face a pesky Big East team in Villanova (20-13), led by head coach Jay Wright, who hasn't had the best of luck against North Carolina in the tournament.

The game will be played in Kansas City, MO on Friday night at 7:20pm eastern time (6:20pm central).

Head Coach Roy Williams was a little taken back when seeing his team seeded so low.

"The reaction, it was unusual. I don't mind telling you, I was stunned. When I saw North Carolina in the No. 8, I was stunned. It took me a couple of seconds (to realize), 'Hey, that's us. That's not somebody else---that's us,'" Williams said.

But all that is out the window now and the Tar Heels have to focus on how to defeat Villanova, who has been playing in one of the top tier conferences this year (the Big East received eight bids into the tournament this year).

As a No. 8 seed, which is tied for the lowest seed for UNC in the tournament, history has been good to the Tar Heels, as the Tar Heels reached the Sweet 16 in 1990 and reached the Final Four in 2000 before losing to Florida.

As mentioned before though, North Carolina has had Villanova's number overall (record of 10-4) and in the tournament, going 4-1 against Villanova in NCAA Tournament play, beating the Wildcats in 1982, 1991, 2005 and 2009 and losing in 1985.

But this year could be a little different, as North Carolina is in a little bit of a different position than they were in 2005, 2009, and even last year.

"(It's) great to be in Kansas City. Great to be in the NCAA tournament. To play this Carolina team, it's going to be challenging, a lot of fun. It should be a great game. Our guys are fired up to be here," said Villanova's Wright on Thursday afternoon.

With North Carolina winning their last 8 of 10, including making it to the finals in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels are looking to surprise a few more teams on their recent success, especially teams that might not know how to matchup with UNC quite yet.

But they can't overlook the Wildcats and what they have done so far this year.

"I've known (Villanova head coach) Jay (Wright) for a long time," Williams said. "He really does a really nice job. We've played twice in the NCAA Tournament. One was a great, really close game (in 2005). One was great for us (in 2009). But anyone that beats Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, and Syracuse down the stretch, that's pretty impressive. And you've got to understand that."

Both teams have glaring issues that each will be looking to take advantage of.


MATCHING UP UNC AND 'NOVA


UNC and Villanova seem to contrast in styles and how they play, as the Wildcats play at a much slower pace than the Tar Heels and Williams like to play.

Villanova ranks #161 in the nation (as of Thursday) in points per game, only averaging 67.4 points, while defensively, the Wildcats are only giving up 64.9 points per game to their opponents.

Nova' likes to slow down the pace of the game, working the ball around and getting to the free throw line.

On average, the Wildcats shoot only 51 attempts a game, making around 21 field goals a game, ranking them near last in the nation in both categories.

But their success at the free throw line offsets their slow pace game, as Villanova leads the nation in free throws and attempts (averages 19 free throws out of 26.3 attempts a game).

Getting the Tar Heels in foul trouble, could certainly damper the party for UNC, as Williams has shortened his bench tremendously from the beginning of the year and the lack of offensive power coming off the bench (Leslie McDonald only true threat off the bench for the Tar Heels).

Villanova is led by their 6-7 sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who has been averaging 13.1 points per game and 4.9 rebounds per game.

Coach Wright has always liked to have close to a four guard lineup, similar to what North Carolina has had to use this year, as Nova' has four players around the perimeter that can shoot the three, while Mouphtaou Yarou is down in the paint (averaging 9.7 points per game and 7.8 rebounds).

However, the Wildcat's have two glaring weaknesses on the team, including defending the three and turnovers, something that UNC could take advantage of.

Villanova ranks over #200 in the nation in defending the three, giving up almost seven or more threes per game, while allowing teams to shoot 19 attempts per game, something that the Tar Heels have shined on all year long.

Coach Wright joked about UNC's hot outside shooting during his press conference with reporters on Thursday afternoon.

"That is an area we have struggled all year, is defending the three‑point line. So, of course, this is the way it works. Who do you get in the NCAA tournament? The only Carolina team that ever has relied strictly on a three‑point line (laughter). That's the way it works," Wright said.

During the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels were firing on all cylinders from behind the arc, as Marcus Paige, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, and Leslie McDonald were lighting it up from behind the three.

During the tournament UNC shot 30 of 72 from three, with each game shooting 21 or more attempts.

"Transition defense, defending their threes, is really important," said Wright. "They're really good at it. (P.J.) Hairston within their offense can at any time find a three. Even if they're running something for (Reggie) Bullock, he can find one. I think this will be as good a three‑point shooting team as we've played all year."

"We've practiced against it. At the same time, if you leave a guy like (James Michael) McAdoo alone inside one‑on‑one, he's very effective. I think that's what makes them good," Wright continued.

Villanova struggles with turning the ball over, averaging 15.6 per game, ranking them #326 in the nation, so in addition to making outside shots, the Tar Heels will want to apply pressure defensively to force mistakes.

Since the smaller lineup change, the Tar Heels have thrived on forcing teams into turnovers, and this appears to be an opponent in which that trend could continue.

There could be multiple factors that determine the outcome of the game, but which team will be able to force their offense on the other could be the ultimate determining factor.

One can't look at records and determine who will win Friday's matchup, because if so, one could look at the Tar Heels record against tournament teams (2-8) this year, while looking at Villanova's record against Top 25 teams this year (4-2) and defeating three Top 5 teams.

Coach Williams would like nothing more to earn a victory over Villanova, not just setting up a possible matchup against his former team in Kansas, but also earning his 700th victory in his career, a true milestone for very few coaches.

The tournament is called March Madness for a reason and it looks like this tournament could be set up to just be that, with so many quality teams in the field of 68 and potential upsets all over the field.

North Carolina in Kansas City might be crazy to some, Coach Williams included, but all they can do now is go out and play quality basketball. If so, they'll certainly have a chance of surviving the weekend and moving on to next week's South Regionals in Arlington (Tex.).








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