UNC vs Villanova: Preview/Prediction

April 2nd, 2009

Saturday's later Final Four game matches the champions of the South Regional, #1 North Carolina (32-4, 13-3) against the East champions, #3 Villanova (30-7, 13-5).

Season Rewind: North Carolina came in to the season as the undisputed #1 team. While the Heels dropped from that perch after a tough week in early January, they've gone 18-2 over its last 20 games. The Tar Heels have been especially strong in the tournament, winning every game they've played by double digits, including a 21-point beat-down of Gonzaga and a comfortable 12-point win over Oklahoma. Villanova seemed set for a middling finish in the Big East after starting its conference schedule with a 2-3 record, but went on a strong run that saw it finish 4th in the standings. The Wildcats lost fairly handily to Louisville in the Big East semifinals, and were in some serious trouble against American in their opening round game, but then flipped a switch, pulling away from the Eagles and cruising through games with UCLA and Duke , and edging Pitt at the buzzer.

UNC O vs Nova D: North Carolina has the country's best offense, and when combined with its fast pace of play, it's no surprise to see that it's scored more than 95 points twice in its four NCAA Tournament games. The Heels are solid long-range shooters, but get most of their chances inside the arc, especially in transition. They also do an excellent job of holding onto the ball and are strong on the offensive glass, meaning that they manage to convert most of their possessions into high-percentage chances. On the rare occasions the offense has struggled, it's had trouble making three-pointers, an area that Villanova will have to control to stay in the game. Villanova's defense has been one of the Big East's best, a solid overall unit with no single specific strength. The Wildcats tend to get opponents to take a lot of three-pointers, and do a decent job defending them. They are also strong on the glass, and defend the inside effectively, but send opponents to the line often, which may spell trouble against Hansborough and co. They've also struggled against teams that shoot a high inside percentage and get back a lot of rebounds, which is another troublesome factor in this match-up.

Villanova O vs UNC D: Villanova has a solid, balanced offense that shoots well from all areas of the floor, competes well on the boards, and really prospers at the stripe, where it makes frequent appearances and shoots 75%. Despite this general strength, the Wildcats need to control turnovers to be successful, something that they've been reasonably effective at doing over the season. They shouldn't get too much trouble from UNC in this regard, as the Heels don't force opponents to give up the ball that much. The major weakness that Villanova can take advantage of is behind the arc. UNC is only average at guarding the 3-point line, while the Wildcats boast various shooters who can easily get hot.

Villanova Lineup: Villanova features an excellent inside-outside duo in 6-8 Dante Cunningham and 6-2 Scottie Reynolds; the two lead the team in every major category. Cunningham recorded double-doubles against both Duke and UCLA, and has shot over 50% from the field in the tournament thus far. Reynolds isn't a great shooter from the field, but does very well at the line, and definitely showed his ability to come up big during clutch moments in the Pitt game. Still, there are some worries based on his play in the tournament; he's been under 30% from behind the arc and has a terrible A/TO ratio. Corey Fisher is third on the team in scoring, and rescued a 7-for-28 shooting performance from the field during the tournament with an ability to earn a lot of points at the line, where he's shot an excellent 24-of-27. He'll need to keep getting there to help Villanova win in Detroit. Senior Dwayne Anderson is another guy who hasn't shot that well from the field, but is productive at the stripe, and he chips in with one of the team's best rebounding rates. Shane Clark also scores well inside, and can threaten from outside, as he did against Pittsburgh. Corey Stokes is Villanova's best three-point shooter, the only guy on the team over 40% for the season. He tends to be a hot-and-cold scorer, and is very dangerous when hot. Reggie Redding has been quietly effective for the Wildcats. He doesn't tend to get a lot of offensive chances, but took said chances well in both the Duke and UCLA games.

UNC Lineup: While there was a lot of focus last week on Ty Lawson's injured toe, it certainly didn't seem to hamper the ACC Player of the Year in his three NCAA Tourney games, as he shot nearly 60% from the field, and had an absurd 3.3 A/TO ratio. No player in the country is as efficient as Lawson, who can score inside and outside and runs the Carolina offense like clockwork. He's the best player left in the tournament, and Carolina's title hopes will be heavily tied to his performance. Tyler Hansborough leads the Heels in scoring and rebounding, and has been solid at generating inside shots and chances from the line without turning the ball over. A relatively poor game against Oklahoma shouldn't be too much of a worry, given he has no Griffins to oppose him in this matchup. Junior Wayne Ellington is another excellent scoring option who shoots very well and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He had a long streak of double-digit games broken against Oklahoma, but will still be dangerous. Danny Green is a good long-distance shooter who tied a career-high with 7 assists against Gonzaga, while Deon Thompson doesn't chip in with a lot of offense, but is solid when called upon. Ed Davis seems set for a big performance; he may not be as renowned as the Heels' top players, but he has rebounding and block rates that put the rest of the team's to shame. His offensive game is still a work in progress, but the advantage he can provide inside is significant.

In Sum: UNC, who rolled through the Memphis regional, is peaking at just the right moment. They're small favorites to cut down the nets Monday night. Villanova certainly has the personnel to surprise, but will have to stay strong on the defensive glass as they were in Boston, and make a good percentage of threes to keep even with the Heels offensive juggernaut. I expect a fun, fast-paced game that sees UNC make a decisive run to pull away over the last 10 minutes.

Winner: North Carolina Margin: 5-9