A Contrast in Style

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When North Carolina and Washington State take the court at Bobcats Arena on Thursday night, it will be fairly simple to know which program is in full control of the game without ever looking at the scoreboard, because the shot clock will tell you everything you need to know.

Washington State head coach Tony Bennett is upfront about not being able to recruit against the national powerhouse programs like North Carolina, Duke and UCLA. But instead of worrying about something that he couldn't control, he followed in his father Dick's footsteps in devising a system that can grind out victories on the court with those same schools, while grinding down their opponents' patience.

"We have a system, we feel, that gives us a chance when we play together collectively to be competitive and hopefully successful against the best," Bennett said. "And it's for us, being real sound. There are so many different ways, obviously, to play the game and be successful but for us it's trying to be as sound as we can in the half court defensively, be sound that way."

The Cougars' strategy is simple. Use the shot clock to discover good looks at the basket, take care of the ball and play tough man-to-man defense. And it's worked. Washington State boasts a 26-8 record while scoring 67 points per game on 48 percent shooting. Only 67 points, you ask? What's even more surprising than that statistic is that Bennett's bunch is holding opponents to just 56.1 points per contest – good for second nationally.

"The system we run, everybody has this perception, I'm used to it, it's boring, it's slow, it's not fun," Bennett said. "I think we play good basketball, we get our kids shots, they learn how to guard and play with the ball."

The statistic comparison between the Cougars and the Tar Heels is quite humorous, in an oddly inverted way. North Carolina counteracts Washington State's scoring defense with the nation's second-ranked scoring offense (89.9), while Roy Williams' scoring defense sits at No. 210 in the country (72.9) versus Bennett's lofty scoring offense ranking of 213th.

Washington State is content with walking the ball up the court after defensive rebounds, while North Carolina wants to score transition points off made baskets. But both styles have been proven to work this season.

While the offensive statistics are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, it should be noted that Washington State ranks 14th nationally in kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings (118 points per 100 possessions). The Tar Heels hold down the No. 2 spot with 126.6 points per 100 possessions.

The Cougars cough up the ball only 10.2 times per contest (4th nationally), enabling them to post an impressive 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio (8th nationally).

"They don't hurt themselves," Williams said. "They don't take bad shots, they don't turn it over a lot. They wait until they get the absolute shot they want on the offensive end."

And in an odd twist, fans and media members tend to equate a slower pace with a stingier defense, but in comparing these two programs, those beliefs are incorrect.

Washington State took advantage of the nation's 192nd –best out-of-conference schedule (according to kenpom.com) to post some staggering field goal percentage defense numbers, but when looking purely at conference play, North Carolina's 42.4 percentage in the ACC is significantly better than the Cougars' 45.5 percentage in the Pac-10.

"We've played against a lot of half-court teams, and I think we're used to having teams slow us down and turn it into a half-court game," Wayne Ellington said. "I think we have to do our job on defense and attack the backboards, and you know, get the ball out quick and we'll be able to play our style of game all game long."

And with that last sentence by UNC's smooth shooting sophomore guard, we have arrived at what may be the most crucial statistic to pay attention to on Thursday night. Bennett realizes that his team cannot run with the boys in Carolina blue – to do so would be the equivalent of roundball suicide.

So while the Cougars attack the defensive glass with vigor and an onslaught of bodies, they don't reciprocate on the other end of the court. Washington State is outside the top-150 in rebounding margin for a reason – they would rather stop an opponent's transition game than hit the offensive boards.

"I think you have to get back if you're going to have a chance," Bennett said bluntly.

Washington State has faced two of the nation's top rebounding teams five times this season in UCLA (8.7 rebounding margin) and Stanford (8.4) – and lost all five games. But the Cougars haven't seen anything like they will encounter on Thursday night, as the Tar Heels are the top rebounding team in the country with an 11.6 margin.

It's also beneficial for North Carolina that the players were forced to adjust their tempo when Ty Lawson went down with an ankle injury over six weeks ago. Not only did that loss toughen the Tar Heels mentally, but they learned to win in scrappy, grind-it-out ball games, such as the 75-74 victory at Virginia and the 68-66 win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament.

"I like winning in the 80s and 90s, but to be the team and reach the dreams we have and be the team we want to be, you've got to be able to win at someone else's tempo," Williams said. "You can't be in your comfort zone all the time."

With an Elite Eight berth on the line for Saturday, whichever team can impose its style of play on their opponent will have the upper hand. After that, it just comes down to efficient execution – an area where both programs have thrived this season.

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