I had planned to recap the North Carolina/Michigan State game last week, but I came to the conclusion that there's precious little value in recapping a 98-63 implosion. Even that lopsided final score didn't begin to capture the totality of the dominance visited upon Tom Izzo's team in the weirdly somnambulant expanses of Detroit's Ford Field last Wednesday night.
The Spartans, to steal from Hemingway, collapsed in two ways: gradually and then suddenly. Chris Allen had a few nice minutes in the first half but that old State bugbear, turnovers, once again reared its bothersome head, as MSU donated the ball to the Heels on about one in every four possessions. Then again, with a "normal" number of turnovers, Michigan State by my reckoning would have lost by a mere 25 points. As I said, peering too deeply into this game would have been an exercise in splitting scorched hairs.
Rather than rake the ashes of this particular blowout, then, I resolved to look ahead and ask a question. One that, as it happens, is put to me on a daily basis: can North Carolina be beaten?
Yes! Assuming my proposal to relocate the Tar Heels into the NBA is the first order of business taken up by our new and laudably sports-conversant president on January 20. Otherwise?
Otherwise, I wish to refocus the question. Believe me, I understand the interest in run-the-table discussions. While running the table was an occasional event back in the '60s and '70s, it hasn't happened now in 33 years. It's a legitimate object of speculation and I will do my fair share of speculating here this season, promise.
Still, let's not lose sight of the obvious. North Carolina could get tripped up at Wake Forest (January 11), at Miami (February 11), at Duke (February 15) or, heck, even at home…and they would still be the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship in Detroit in April.
This is what an overwhelming favorite looks like:
North Carolina 2008-2009
Through games of December 7
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
H: home A: away N: neutral
Opponent Pace PPP PPP EM
Penn (H) 74.9 1.15 0.95 +0.20
Kentucky (H) 73.3 1.05 0.79 +0.26
UCSB (A) 75.5 1.11 0.89 +0.22
Chaminade (N) 81.3 1.41 0.86 +0.55
Oregon (N) 84.3 1.16 0.82 +0.34
Notre Dame (N) 74.1 1.38 1.17 +0.21
UNC Asheville (H) 83.0 1.40 0.58 +0.82
Michigan St. (N) 84.4 1.16 0.75 +0.41
Overall 78.8 1.23 0.84 +0.39
Nor does this picture change materially if you discard the outliers. Looking at just their wins over major-conference foes (Kentucky, Oregon, Notre Dame, Michigan State), Carolina is still outscoring opponents by more than 0.30 points per trip. The technical term for that level of performance over four games, only one of which was a home game, is "insane."
- There is no scenario involving earthlings and the current laws of gravity where North Carolina does not get a one-seed in the NCAA tournament.
- Since 2005, one-seeds are 32-0 in first-weekend games.
- Since 2006, one-seeds are 44-6 against opponents who aren't one-seeds.
There is a very well-established path that will almost certainly lead North Carolina back to the Motor City. For this team to be denied the title will likely require an upset on the order of Connecticut defeating Duke in the 1999 national championship game. That kind of upset is not impossible, of course, but it is unlikely--and a UNC loss earlier in the tournament is far more unlikely.
Speaking of Connecticut, what about the Huskies this year? They look scary to everyone but Buffalo, right? Could they hang with North Carolina? I don't know yet. Last year UConn's offense was much better than commonly realized (even better than Notre Dame's in-conference) but their defense was much worse. Yes, Hasheem Thabeet blocks shots. That, however, was all this team had to offer on defense last year. As a result, there were no less than seven Thabeet-less Big East teams that actually played better defense in-conference in 2008.
Besides--at the risk of belaboring the obvious--to beat Carolina, Connecticut will first have to make it that far in the tournament. To make it that far, Jim Calhoun's team would be well advised to repeat last year's excellent offense (no small feat) while improving their D significantly. I will be watching very closely and will keep you posted. Meanwhile, don't sleep on other potential Davids to this year's Goliath. (Gonzaga anyone?)
One last advisory note as we embark on what is likely to be a season-long discussion of "how to beat North Carolina." Hoops pundits tend to get needlessly hung up on pace, as in: "To beat North Carolina you need to make them play half-court." That prescription can have value for some teams but it should never be regarded as an irrevocable ukase for all teams. Pace should never be confused with style.
To beat North Carolina you need to play your style and make your shots. If the way for your team to do that in the most effective and stylistically comfortable manner is to run, great. Do it. If on the other hand you need to wind the shot clock down under ten on every possession, fine. Do that. The essential defensive objective here is something that usually falls under the heading of offense: make your shots. Carolina's offense is most lethal when they ignite it with a defensive board. The six seconds that follow that rebound quite often result in two or more points for Roy Williams' men.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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