4/03/2009 03:31:00 AM
Yesterday, the Rush the Court college basketball blog asked me to contribute a guest post to its site on how Villanova could win on Saturday.
Make no mistake about it: Villanova is the underdog tomorrow. North Carolina is favored by 7.5 points in Vegas and by 4 points by KenPom (with a 66 percent chance of victory).
More intuitively, common sense tells us the Tarheels are the superior team. North Carolina features five likely future first-round draft picks: Ed Davis, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Ellington, and Ty Lawson will all cash big NBA paychecks.
Villanova might sneak Dante Cunningham into this year's second round, but that's pretty much it in terms of NBA prospects as of right now. (Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds, and Corey Stokes are also plausible NBA candidates, but are not quite there yet.)
The Tarheels have lost just four games this season, compared to seven for Villanova. While the Wildcats squeaked by Pittsburgh last weekend in one of the all-time great NCAA tournament games, North Carolina blew out Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, with a 12-point margin of victory in a game that was not even that close.
Carolina has not really been challenged in the tournament so far, winning four blow-outs. Villanova trailed American by double digits in the second half before coming up with the win. The 'Cats also played Pittsburgh to a virtual draw for 39 minutes and 55 seconds before Scottie Reynolds entered the pantheon of great NCAA tournament buzzer-beaters to win the game.
Villanova was able to blow out both UCLA and Duke, which is a good sign.
North Carolina also will enjoy a tremendous coaching edge. I don't care how much you like Jay Wright; Roy Williams is one of the all-time greats. I don't think there can be much debate about that.
Positives for Villanova include a rapid, intense improvement in quality of play late in the season, a versatile bunch of players who can multi-task on the court, a superior half-court defense, and a likely favorable crowd in Detroit, especially if MSU wins the opener.
Conventional wisdom also says that the Wildcats play "tougher" than the 'Heels, but I am not so sure toughness matters so much when your opponent has a lineup full of NBA players. (I do think it matters some.) We shall see.
So, in the face of these long odds, how can Villanova actually win the game?
Though the Wildcats probably won't have to play the much-vaunted "perfect game" like their predecessors did in 1985 to beat Georgetown, it's clear that this game will require an effort well above-average from Villanova.
If both teams bring their "A" games, Carolina wins. But if Villanova can play to its strengths while taking advantage of Tarheel missteps, it could be the Wildcats playing on Monday night for a spot in history.
"READ MORE" below for the keys to the game, as I see them.
- Convert on open threes. Allowing uncontested three-pointers might be Carolina's Achilles' (Tar)heel. UNC let Oklahoma take several wide-open shots behind the arc, but the Sooners could not put them in. Hitting those long shots will be an absolute prerequisite for any Wildcat win on Saturday. Fortunately, Villanova has the firepower to take advantage of this. Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes are all excellent three-point shooters; Dwayne Anderson and even Shane Clark can put them in if they get going. Though Reynolds and Fisher have struggled from long-range in the tournament so far, perhaps their 2008 experience at Ford Field's "arena" will allow them to heat up quickly.
- Win the battle on the glass. This isn't just a cliche. Of course, it's always important to grab rebounds in any game, but it's especially crucial on Saturday. Rebounding is one of the few areas where Villanova might be equally talented as the Tarheels, so the Wildcats need to create an advantage there. Wayne Ellington may be a better scorer than Reggie Redding by orders of magnitude, but there's nothing to suggest he is a better rebounder. Winning the rebounding battle will also give the Wildcats' less efficient scorers more chances to put points on the board, and limit UNC's offensive opportunities. Villanova does tend to play tough, smart, efficient basketball, whereas UNC relies on more of a shock-and-awe attack, overwhelming their opponents with points. Villanova definitely wants this game to be a battle of attrition, not a shootout, and rebounding is the first step to controlling the game's tempo and style.
- Limit Wayne Ellington. Ellington's play may be the key to Carolina's margin of victory or defeat. He is the most dangerous third scoring option in the nation. Oftentimes when teams concern themselves with limiting Ty Lawson's penetration and Tyler Hansbrough's play in the post, Ellington burns them on the perimeter. Villanova is full of athletic big guards who can stay with Ellington should he try to drive to the basket; Reggie Redding, Corey Stokes, and Dwayne Anderson should all be up for the task. Where Ellington will be most dangerous is spotting up for three-pointers, whether in transition, off screens, or off a Lawson drive. It's the latter case about which I am most concerned. The temptation will be great for Nova's wing defenders to collapse in on Lawson as he progresses to the basket, and in many cases they will need to. But the one player they simply cannot leave open behind the arc is Ellington.
- Hope Lawson is a step slow. Villanova has a lot of trouble with speedy point guards. The Wildcats have lost this year to Texas (AJ Abrams), UConn (AJ Price), Marquette (Dominic James), and Georgetown (Chris Wright). Even in their two wins over Syracuse, Jonny Flynn gave the Wildcats fits from the perimeter. Lawson, at his best, is faster and better than any of the guards mentioned here. Fortunately for Villanova, Lawson is recovering from a toe injury, and might not be as speedy as usual. Though he is the player of the tournament so far, Lawson has been getting it done with shooting and passing rather than on his trademark explosions to the rim. Villanova has the personnel to deal with the former two attacks, but has lots of trouble with the latter. If Lawson is not at 100 percent of his speed, the chances for a Villanova win increase dramatically.
- Limit turnovers. This one is obvious. Carolina loves to run. The Tarheels have the horses to do it. No one can stop UNC in transition. Less obvious, though, is the fact that more turnovers by Villanova means fewer possessions that the Wilcats' advantage in the half-court defense can be applied -- on either end. One of the few areas where the 'Cats have an edge over UNC is in the half-court on defense. If UNC can render that moot by jumpstarting its offense via transition, the game will be over quickly. Similarly, the Tarheels' half-court defense is not as good as Villanova's, but that won't matter if the 'Cats forfeit possessions with turnovers.
What do you think the keys to the game are? Let us know in the comment thread below.