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FINAL FOUR PREVIEW: VILLANOVA VS NORTH CAROLINA
April 3, 2009

SCS.com In October, people began to talk about North Carolina. Every significant basketball writer picked the Heels to win the National Championship, but some fans had other plans in mind for UNC— plans for the first undefeated season since 1976 Indiana.

Five months later, North Carolina has lost four games. That still hasn’t stopped anyone from picking this team as the favorite this weekend, and the oddsmakers even named UNC the front-runner. Villanova, the nation’s hottest and most surprising team, is the next task for the Heels to topple.

THE MATCHUP: (1) NORTH CAROLINA VS (3) VILLANOVA

HOW THEY GOT HERE

North Carolina

The only real challenge North Carolina has faced during the NCAA tournament came against LSU in the second round. But despite trailing in the second half of that game, UNC eventually won by double digits. The Tar Heels most recently embarrassed Gonzaga and Oklahoma in Memphis to advance to this position. The knock on this team all year has been its lackadaisical attitude at certain times and inability to defend. Roy Williams seems to have that straightened out. Then again, North Carolina looked pretty good in last year’s first four rounds before Kansas blasted it in the Final Four.

Villanova

The Wildcats took care of a feisty American team before blowing out UCLA and Duke, which matched them against Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight. That game did not disappoint. As you surely know, the contest ended with a driving layup by Scottie Reynolds just before the buzzer, and image that will be forever played on ESPN Classic and YouTube. It would seem that the Big East competition has paid off for Villanova. The Wildcats lost five league games and finished fourth in the conference— and now, they’re one of the top four teams in the nation.

MOST COMPELLING STORYLINE

The Pressure on North Carolina

North Carolina is the team with all the expectations here. Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington all came back to Chapel Hill for a reason: to win a national title. That, and the fact that their NBA Draft stock had plummeted. But mostly, it was the national title thing. For these UNC players, everything is riding on this Final Four. The season’s success or failure depends on the outcome of this weekend. For Villanova, that’s not exactly true. Jay Wright and the players might tell the media that it’s “Championship or Bust,” but I guarantee that the Wildcats’ fans would handle a loss much better than the UNC faithful.

MOST COMPELLING INDIVIDUAL MATCHUP

Ty Lawson (UNC) vs. Scottie Reynolds (Villanova)

These are the two players most critical to their respective teams’ success. Ty Lawson serves as North Carolina’s floor leader and controller, and without him, Roy William’s up-tempo attack does not run. Scottie Reynolds has proven that Villanova is vulnerable when he doesn’t play well. Just look at the Wildcats’ loss to Georgetown, when Reynolds shot 2-10 from the field, or the defeat to Louisville, when he scored two points. Reynolds isn’t always the most efficient player, and he often plays out of control, but Lawson cannot allow him to get on a roll.

STRENGTHS

North Carolina

It’s impossible to key on just one player. The entire starting lineup averages double-figures in scoring. Even the bench is filled with instant scoring. Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson provide the post scoring. Ty Lawson dishes out the assists and has asserted himself as the point guard. Wayne Ellington and Danny Green are the sharpshooters, and the list seems to never end. How do you defend these guys? Simple answer: you don’t.

Villanova

Villanova’s size/speed combination at guard is lethal. The Wildcats want to attack opposing defenses, and they use their physical skills to their advantage. Villanova will spread the court with its athletic guards and attack the hoop. That will be tough for even North Carolina to defend, especially if the Heels don’t bring any defensive intensity. And of course, the offense runs through outstanding senior big man Dante Cunningham, who compliments the guards with his low post athleticism.

WEAKNESSES

North Carolina

UNC has a one well-documented weakness— defense. That’s what everyone wants to talk about, but you can’t ignore the Heels’ tendency to stop defending. At any point in time, all five players on the floor for them can score, but UNC has to play with fire on the defensive end. When Roy Williams’ guys get lackadaisical, trouble brews.

Villanova

After Dante Cunningham, Villanova has almost no depth in the post. Nobody on the roster even rivals Cunningham’s skills. When he gets into foul trouble, it’s tough for the Wildcats to continue to play their game. Cunningham is an integral part of the offense with his versatility and ability to hit outside jumpers, as well as get in the lane and score from the paint. He has to avoid picking up stupid fouls, just like any productive big man.

WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO

For the Tar Heels to win...

North Carolina better bring it, plain and simple. UNC needs to prove that it isn’t soft— that it’s willing to bang and play a slugfest if needed. The Tar Heels have better players, more depth, a more accomplished coach and a better team. Everyone knows it, including Roy Williams. So now, it’s time to go to work. North Carolina needs a business-like approach up in Detroit to ensure focus.

For the Wildcats to win...

Villanova will need to control tempo and slow down the high-octane Tar Heels. LSU did a good job of this in the first half of its game against UNC, and that allowed the Tigers to stay in the game. North Carolina hasn’t always responded well against teams who play a half-court game. Tempo will be the single-most important factor in this ballgame.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Media members love to point out that this is Tyler Hansbrough’s “mission,” but what about the other seniors in this tournament? Dante Cunningham doesn’t want to go home. Heck, what about the rest of the UNC squad? There’s a good chance that most of the Heels’ starters will be in the NBA next year, so this is the last time around for them. The pressure is on, and we’ll see who wilts under the bright lights of Ford Field.

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