Grudge Match

ST. LOUIS – North Carolina and Kansas trotted out offensive juggernauts the last time they played during the 2008 Final Four. This time, the Tar Heels and Jayhawks will likely engage in a war of attrition based in physical post play, defense and rebounding.

Let's play a quick game of trivia before advancing any further. Players were asked on Saturday afternoon what the team's formula for success is when shots aren't falling. Your task is to name the player.

Answer No. 1: "I think that our formula is when guys on the perimeter are not making shots, it's to pound it in down low to our big guys and see if they can get things going for us."

Answer No. 2: "I think that it's on the defensive end. We've got to be a tough defensive team, we've got to stop other guys from scoring and we've got to be great rebounders."

If you guessed a pair of Tar Heels, then you guessed wrong. Kansas wing Travis Releford offered the first answer and guard Tyshawn Taylor supplied the second.

The similarities between these two programs extend beyond the off-court history of Dean Smith, Larry Brown and Roy Williams.

The "will he, won't he" drama surrounding Kendall Marshall's playing status will persist up until tip-off on Sunday, but even if the sophomore magician does play, he'll be operating with one hand.

And although Marshall's offensive production has increased dramatically over the past month, North Carolina has still managed to shoot below 42.0 percent in seven of its last 13 games. Kansas, on the other hand, made two field goals from outside of four feet on Friday night against N.C. State, according to head coach Bill Self.

Neither team is lethal from long range. Kansas is shooting 34.6 percent, while North Carolina is just behind at 34.2 percent. UNC holds the edge in NCAA Tournament play with 20 made 3-pointers on 35.7 percent shooting, compared to KU's 12 made 3-pointers on 22.2 percent shooting.

Both teams have conference players of the year in the post – UNC's Tyler Zeller vs. KU's Thomas Robinson – to lean on for scoring when the perimeter shots aren't falling.

And both teams have lengthy shot-blockers – UNC's John Henson vs. KU's Jeff Withey – that serve as the foundation for strong defensive play. Kansas ranks third nationally in field goal percentage defense (37.8), while North Carolina checks in at No. 17 in the rankings with a 39.2 percent mark.

The Tar Heels have countered that discrepancy with the nation's top rebounding margin (plus-10.9). Kansas ranks 23rd with a plus-5.7 advantage.

That smorgasbord of similarity suggests that Sunday's Elite Eight matchup will be geared more towards checkers than chess. Brute force and hustle plays over the beauty of offensive explosion.

"It's going to be a tough one, a really physical game," Withey said. "On [Friday] night the refs let us play and that's what we like. We like being able to play a physical game. If it's like that [Sunday] night, then it's going to be really fun for us. It's going to be a battle."

It's been rare for either team to encounter equivalent talent in the post this season. Most quality teams have just one legit interior player. Kentucky joins UNC and Kansas in making up the handful of programs with two quality bigs.

Respect extends both ways. Withey and Robinson were complimentary of Zeller and Barnes, and vice versa.

"They're two big men that are playing very well together and they're tough to guard, and they're tough to score on," Henson said. "So it's going to be a tough game for me and Z down there."

As odd as it may sound, the Jayhawks' talent inside could actually benefit UNC freshman point guard Stilman White. With Marshall watching from the sidelines on Friday night, Ohio made up for its lack of size by collapsing on Zeller and Henson and clogging up the passing lanes.

When asked if it would be easier to get the ball inside if Kansas's bigs plays 1-on-1 defensively, White replied: "It definitely does."

Henson prefers solo matchups as opposed to swarming double- and triple-teams.

"You want to play 1-on-1," Henson said. "I think it's an easier scoring opportunity. I don't know about me getting double-teamed, but I'd imagine that they will help a little bit down on ‘Z' because he's such a threat down there. We're going to be ready to play, whatever they do."

Zeller didn't necessarily agree, saying, "The bigger teams are sometimes more difficult just because they can guard you 1-on-1."

If Marshall doesn't play or is at least limited in what he can do, then the focus will be on White and his ability to withstand the Jayhawks' ball pressure. That, of course, becomes a bigger issue if interior passing lanes are shut down due to UNC's inability to open them from the perimeter, a la Friday night.

"I think we need to knock down some perimeter shots to get some relief for the big guys inside and we weren't doing that against Ohio, so they packed it in and they did a good job swiping at the ball," White said. "They were just ball-hawking really well, but we have really good shooters on this team and I'm pretty confident we'll knock them down [Sunday]."

Kansas can relate. Just ask Taylor.

"We have been having some rough shooting nights, but we have still been able to win," the senior guard said on Saturday. "Because we have been rebounding the ball well and playing pretty good defense."

That's what Sunday ultimately boils down to.


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