MEMPHIS, Tenn. – North Carolina assistant coach Steve Robinson tried to tell Isaiah Hicks what to expect in that random ballroom on Paradise Island some two-and-a-half years ago.
While the Tar Heels prepared for their Battle 4 Atlantis matchup with Butler in a makeshift locker room that was little more than a standard hotel conference space with office chairs doubling as lockers, the veteran coach told the then-sophomore forward that playing the Bulldogs was a man’s game.
Robinson, of course, knew what he was talking about. Two years prior, Brad Stevens’s Butler squad smacked the Tar Heels by double digits with a physical hand in the Maui Invitational. Once again on an island, this time on the opposite side of the country, Chris Holtmann’s Bulldogs took the fight to UNC and bruised the Tar Heels on the boards, grabbing 29 offensive rebounds, which are tied for the most allowed by an opponent in the Roy Williams era.
“They beat us with toughness,” Hicks said on Thursday. “The scouting report then was the team that plays the hardest is going to win. I feel like they played harder even though they were the underdogs. They wanted it more than us, and they took it.”
On Friday, many of the same players from both programs will take the FedExForum court with the prize being a trip to the Elite Eight. And while the years have passed and players have matured, Butler’s game plan has not changed.
“That’s going to be a big thing for us,” said Bulldogs forward Andrew Chrabascz, who logged 32 minutes in the 2014 win. “We have to keep it as physical as possible, and I know Coach Williams is saying that to them, trying to challenge them in a way. So yeah, we have to come with the same mindset, just make it start to finish as sloppy as possible.”
The Tar Heels offered a variety of adjectives to describe Butler’s play during Thursday’s media availability, words such as gritty and tough. It’s understandable the Bulldogs would emphasize that approach, given UNC’s preference for finesse and its gaudy offensive statistics to support its style (UNC ranks sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com).
“They do what they do, and they do it in such an exceptional way,” Holtmann said, “And they say, ‘come stop us,’ and it's a lot easier said than done. We're going to have to be really physical.”
The 29 offensive rebounds from the previous meeting have been a talking point for the UNC coaching staff this week, although Butler's love for contact extends beyond the paint.
“If you cut, they check you every time,” UNC senior guard Nate Britt said. “Any time you try to move, there’s going to be contact on the perimeter. That’s how they play. You just have to expect a real physical game and not shy away from it.”
By establishing contact at every opportunity, the Bulldogs effectively limit the fluidity in which UNC thrives. That’s been enough to knock the Tar Heels out of their mental game in recent years, although it’s maybe not the easy switch that it once was. The Tar Heels that were manhandled in the Bahamas are now older, wiser and stronger. They’ve also played in 11 NCAA Tournament games since then, including last season’s national championship game against a Villanova squad that employed similar tactics.
“I feel like we’ve done a better job these past two years because that’s what Coach has emphasized,” Hicks said. “We made it to that last Monday night because of our toughness. I think we’ve done a better job with that. It’s all about not looking at anybody lightly and just competing. It’s always the team that plays the hardest wins.”
The Tar Heels will have the most talent on the court on Friday night. Butler’s ability to mitigate that talent by sheer force will likely determine which team hangs around Beale Street for another couple of days.