"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sweet 16 prep: Four Myths About UNC

It should surprise no one that all of Marquette is keenly focused on one thing right now: Friday's game with the North Carolina Tar Heels. Well, maybe two things with all the coaching rumors, but we're going to discuss UNC. As everyone tries to break down the game and figure out how Marquette can win, it seems that our expectations of Marquette playing their game is clouding the truth about what UNC's game actually is.

Here are a few myths that should be dispelled before the UNC game.

Myth 1: Get UNC in a hole and you can beat them

Okay, if it's a big enough hole, and you're good enough, this is somewhat true. But plenty of teams this year have had UNC down and made the mistake of thinking they were out. Virginia was up 50-44 with 6:40 to play at home, but then succumbed to an 18-6 run to end the game. Virginia Tech led by as many as 16, and had a 52-47 lead with 5:01 to play before a 17-9 UNC run closed out their upset bid at Chapel Hill. Miami had two chances, leading by as many as 14 in the first half before being held to just 4 points in the final 4:17 of a 74-71 home loss, and in the ACC Tournament led by 19 with 9:56 to play before a 27-6 UNC run left them heartbroken. Clemson also got a double-dose, being held scoreless for 4:35 in the waning moments as a late lead turned into a home loss in February, then saw a 73-66 lead disappear as they went scoreless in the final 3:56 before falling in overtime in the ACC Tournament a month later. It happened most recently to Washington, who took lead after lead in the second half against the Tar Heels only to be held to 4 points in a 4:06 stretch late as UNC took back the lead and put away the game.

Marquette has had their share of close losses and late collapses. Notre Dame, UConn, and most painfully Louisville all stand out as bad memories. This team needs to put together a full 40 minutes to be UNC, because no team in the nation has been better at finishing the comeback. The teams that bet UNC did so by scoring consistently in the second half, not by coasting on a big lead. If Marquette gets up, they have to keep scoring consistently, avoid the 2+ minute droughts, and put their foot on UNC's throat.

Myth 2: Foul Trouble and Free Throws Will See Us Through

If we can get UNC in foul trouble and win the battle at the free throw line, we should win this game. However, that's a very tall order. UNC is second in the nation in terms of defensive free throw rate. Their starters don't foul much, and getting them in foul trouble will be very difficult. John Henson and Kendall Marshall have never had more than 3 fouls in a game this year. Neither Tyler Zeller nor Harrison Barnes have fouled out even once. The only starter to foul out was Dexter Strickland, and he's only fouled out once, on the road against Duke. In fact, the only other player to foul out all season was Justin Knox against Minnesota in November.

Marquette thrives on getting their opponent in foul trouble, and making more free throws than their opponent takes. But against a team that rarely fouls and doesn't give you chances at the line, it will be far more important that Marquette make their shots from the field, because the odds are those calls won't be there come Friday.

Myth 3: Slow UNC Down to Beat Them

Quite simply, playing at a slower pace does not improve your chances for beating UNC. Instead, it makes it more likely that they will win. In games with 72 or fewer possessions, UNC went a stunning 12-1, including 7-0 in games with 68 or fewer possessions. Marquette, on the other hand, was 15-12 in games with 72 or fewer possessions. Why play a slow-down game when UNC barely ever loses those games and Marquette only wins a little over half the time? On the other hand, in games with 73 or more possessions, UNC is 16-6 while Marquette is 7-2.

The bulk of UNC's losses come in faster-paced games, while Marquette's odds of winning also improve when the game is played at pace. MU needs to be able to match UNC's pace to have a chance of winning.

Myth 4: UNC has a Great Offense and Mediocre Defense

While North Carolina can score a ton of points, they actually have a more efficient defense than they do offense. According to kenpom.com, they have the #7 defense in the country, and they do almost everything well, limiting effective field goal percentage, shooting percentage from both 2 and 3, offensive rebounds, and getting blocks. Defense will be a huge key to this game, and it seems the magic number for efficiency is 99. When UNC holds their opponents below a 99 offensive efficiency, they are 23-1, but only 5-6 when their opponents break 99. Marquette has a similar resume, going 18-1 when holding opponents below 99 but only 4-13 when allowing above 99.

Defense will be a huge factor, and UNC's is one of the best. One interesting additional note here, in UNC's four worst defensive performances, they won all the games. Those four games also featured four of their seven best offensively efficient performances. That should serve as a reminder of how dangerous they are late in the game: UNC trailed in three of those games with under 5:00 to play.

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