It's North Carolina vs Gonzaga in Friday's night cap
And so it has arrived, the third round of the NCAA Tournament that is, where top seeded North Carolina (30-4) will face off against 4th seed Gonzaga (28-5) at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN. The game will tip off at 9:57 p.m., as the second game of the night, following the Oklahoma/SU match up, and as with all the games in March Madness, will be televised by CBS. If you are going to the game I did a "Trekking with the Heels: Memphis" post with many things that could be useful when in the city. But now back to the game between the Heels and the Zags. One that, like many others this season, is going to be about what Carolina will bring to the table more than what the opponents do.
If North Carolina comes ready to play with their best effort, whether Gonzaga is on the ball or not won't matter, as UNC will win the game. There is no doubt in my mind if both teams are playing at their best the Tar Heels are the stronger of the two. Head coach Roy Williams has a team that is not as deep as most would have thought, due to injuries and other happenings this season, but it still contains five players in the starting lineup that will see the NBA when their time comes (four this year and Deon Thompson next), and they can all score enough to make a difference in a game. Add that to the fact that I believe the numbers on Gonzaga's defense make them seem a lot better than they actually are, and that will be the difference in the end for me. Yes, there are the ones that will get more points, as they are expected to, like Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington or Danny Green. But a healthy Ty Lawson, which all indications point to that, can score 20 in a half, as he did against LSU (21 to be exact). A Deon Thompson on his game can get you a 10-12 pts/6-8 boards game, and help alleviate the pressure from his All American counterpart.
The bench might be thinner than it should have been for coach Williams, but it still goes three deep, with option A being freshman power forward Ed Davis, who some say that, out of the whole team, is the best NBA prospect Carolina has. He too can come in and score, rebound, plus add the dimension of shot blocking to the squad. Not a bad thing to have coming off the bench. Senior Bobby Frasor gives breathers to both the point guard spot and the shooting guard, while freshman Larry Drew II can easily fill in at the point, and after having played in the ACC Tournament it seems he is becoming an asset to the squad. Another frosh, center Tyler Zeller, gets some minutes, but you have to believe here the old "what if" comes into play when thinking of this young man who got hurt (broken wrist) at the beginning of the season. If he didn't get that injury, how much more he could have given to the front court? That same theory goes towards senior Marcus Ginyard, out for the entire season. What if he hadn't been, since Ginyard was the best perimeter defender the team had?
Let's be brutally honest here, many of the Tar Heels fans, or should I say faithful, have complained about how the analysts and experts are not calling for them to win it all. Had Ginyard been healthy the whole season, as well as Zeller, there would be no doubt who the best team in the land was on paper. I say on paper because nothing is written in stone, and to win six games in a row with college athletes takes both skills and luck. Having said all of this I still believe that with the talent that North Carolina has, if they find a bit of luck, could easily be the team cutting down the nets this year. There are four games left, with the first one being against Gonzaga tomorrow night, and to me the keys of this game are pretty simple:
Ty Lawson's speed. You can teach a lot of things in sports, but speed is one you just can't. Lawson has it, and if he can use it to get his usual four/five baskets they just might be the 10 extra points that will separate the Heels from their opponents.
Free Throws. I have a feeling that both Lawson and Ty Hansbrough will see a lot of the charity stripe. They have to hit their free throws and make sure that they make Gonzaga pay for sending them there.
Bread & Butter. Those that read my blog know what I am talking about. For those that haven't ever read this blog, or don't remember, Bread & Butter to me is going inside first and letting the big men start the play. If Gonzaga double teams Hansbrough, finding the open man for a trifecta (using the Dick Vitale vocabulary) will open up the defense and make the holes in the zone even bigger.
Outside shooting. We know that Wayne Ellington is hitting and doing it well, with 21 against Radford and 23 versus LSU. But the Heels also need Danny Green to do the same, because if both of the shooters can nail three's Gonzaga is going to have to get out of the zone, and when you take teams out of their strengths you are alwasy better off.
Defense. This is going to be crucial for the Heels. I truly believe the Zags feels they can compete with the Tar Heels. If you let them, then perception becomes reality and the battle will be more and more uphill. If you shut them down, make them take hard shots, and use their misses against them (see Lawson's speed), then the pink elephant that Gonzaga can not get past the Sweet Sixteen will once again show up.
Do not panic. Gonzaga can and might make several runs. They can get ahead of the Heels, but what coach Williams' team must not do is panic and try to get all the points back by taking quick 3 pointers. Go to the Bread & Butter, work on defense and use Lawson's speed to get the quick points back.
While a lot of people believe the talent is even on both teams, and I can agree with that for the most part, the Heels have seen a lot more this season than Gonzaga. The Maryland experience has put an "L" in their record, but it should have also taught them a lot about closing out the game. There is no doubt in my mind that if the game is close it will be UNC winning it when it's all over, they just have to play their way, the Carolina Way. The Vegas oddsmakers had the Heels as 8 points favorite to begin the week, now the line is at 8.5, and that means that for the most part people believe this is going to be a "W" for UNC, I tend to agree, and while it might not be a blow out, it's going to be one that coach Williams and his squad will be able to be in control of for most of the game.