While the Tar Heels don't have anyone on their roster as talented as Texas' Kevin Durant, they do play much better team basketball than the Longhorns and will enter Friday's game as the heavy favorite.
Guards: #5 Ty Lawson, #2 Wayne Ellington
Two of Carolina's three freshman starters line up in the back court in the form of point guard Ty Lawson and off-guard Wayne Ellington.
Lawson (5-11, 193) is a dynamic offensive point guard. He averages 10.5 points per game and his assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly three-to-one. He's making over 52 percent of his field goal attempts and absolutely refuses to be kept outside the arc. His dribble penetration is fantastic and, although he is also a freshman, getting him to have the same kind of game as Texas' D.J. Augustin will be a huge challenge. Either Gabe Pruitt or Daniel Hackett will most likely draw Lawson as a defensive assignment. Both Trojans will have a serious height advantage over the Tar Heel and while that may not be to their advantage defensively with the speedy Lawson, they should be able to attack him constantly on offense. If Lawson's game can be nitpicked, it's on defense and at the free throw line. He is third on the team in attempts from the line, but is shooting just 69 percent. Also, look for the Trojan ball handlers to make him work defensively.
Wayne Ellington (6-4, 195) will be a more traditional match up for Lodrick Stewart, Pruitt or Hackett to take on. Ellington is averaging nearly 12 points per game, along with three rebounds and two assists. The Tar Heels don't shoot a ton of three pointers, but if they're being shot, it's a good chance that Ellington is doing the shooting. He's the only player on the roster with more than 96 shots from behind the arc, and Ellington is nearly lapping that total, with 170. He shoots below 40 percent from three-point range and at 44 percent overall, is the only Carolina starter shooting under 50 percent from the field. That has much more to do with Ellington being a freshman and taking ill-advised shots than him not being a great shooter. If he's left open, he'll knock pretty much anything down.
Forwards: #34 Brandan Wright, #3 Reyshawn Terry, #50 Tyler Hansbrough
Brandan Wright (6-9, 205) is the third freshman in the starting line up and probably has the most talent of all the players on the Carolina roster. He is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and can make two or three "wow" plays in every game. He leads the team in blocks per game (nearly two) and field goal percentage (65 percent), and ranks second on the team in points per game (14.6) and rebounds per game (6.1). Physically, Wright is extremely athletic, but his slight frame gets him into trouble on defense against more powerful forwards. He is a fantastic shot blocker, but the majority of them come on help defense or on lay-ups. He doesn't do well when forced to man up in the low post and hold his ground against an attacker backing into him. The Trojans don't really have anyone outside of Taj Gibson who can do that, so it will be interesting to see what kind of strategy Tim Floyd employs.
Offensively, Wright is very dynamic. His lack of strength doesn't allow him to get good position underneath, but he has some fantastic moves once he gets inside 15 feet or so and he is an absolute finisher. Defensively, the Trojans need to get some great help from either RouSean Cromwell or Keith Wilkinson, because putting a smaller player on Wright (as the Trojans did against Kevin Durant) simply won't work. He spends far too much time inside and having him matched up against a smaller player is exactly what Carolina will be looking for.
Reyshawn Terry (6-8, 232) has been in the news heading up to this game after being diagnosed with strep throat. He is saying he will play on Friday, but if he is playing at anything less than 100%, the Trojans will get a break. He is probably the least potent offensive threat for Carolina, averaging 9.8 points per game, but Terry is one of those guys who can go off and flat-out guarantee a Tar Heel victory. When he scores in double figures, as he has 18 times this season, Carolina wins. It's pretty much as simple as that. With so many scoring threats already on the court, Terry's added productivity is just too much for opponents to overcome. In order to keep Terry's scoring down, the Trojans need to avoid giving him any open three-point looks. He's only shot 96 of them this season, but he hits them at nearly 44 percent. If he can string together a couple of open looks from outside, that scoring number will quickly climb. Defensively, Terry is athletic and his frame will make it difficult for anyone other than Gibson to attack him inside. Against both Terry and Wright, I'd expect the Trojans to spread the floor and make them defend all the way out to the three-point line. They are both very quick for big men, but the Trojans' smaller guards should be able to outrun them through screens and good ball movement.
Tyler Hansbrough (6-9, 245) patrols the middle for the Tar Heels. Although Wright is probably their most talented player, at this point, Hansbrough is their best. He leads the team in scoring, with 18.6 points per game, and rebounding, with 7.9 per game. He makes his living underneath the basket and at the foul line. He's a 53 percent shooter from the floor and hits at 76 percent from the line. This season, Hansbrough has hit 225 free throws, 78 more than anyone else on the team has attempted. He is a very emotional player and can be thrown out of his element when he's bumped around a bit. Hansbrough is not a fantastic defender, however, and if he draws Taj Gibson down low, he could have some problems.
G/F #14 Danny Green (6-5, 210), F #21 Deon Thompson (6-8, 245), G/F #1 Marcus Ginyard (6-5, 218), G #4 Bobby Fraser (6-3, 208) and G #22 Wes Miller (5-11, 190)
All five bench guys have seen more than ten minutes of action per game this season. Marcus Ginyard has seen the most time in the first two tournament games, but Deon Thompson's eight points in two games lead the bench. While North Carolina may be talented and deep, it's going to be up to the starters to get it done.
Unless this game turns into a blowout either way or there's foul trouble involved, you can bet that Hansbrough, Wright, Terry, and Lawson will be out on the floor.
Against Texas, we saw that Tim Floyd was capable of coming up with a defensive game plan that would stop a freshman point guard and one dynamic playmaker. Friday night, we'll see if he can do that same against a freshman point guard and four playmakers.
This Carolina team is an offensive powerhouse. They average more than 86 points per game, shoot over 50 percent as a team from the floor and are constantly running up and down the court.
The Trojans need to come out hot from the floor Friday night. They probably don't have the offensive firepower needed to come back against a team like Carolina. Tim Floyd will have his guys playing defense and one thing that should play into the Trojans' hands is the fact that the Tar Heels don't like to rely on jump shots or outside shooting. Against Oregon, we saw what can happen when a team full of shooters all heat up at the same time. Carolina shouldn't present that same problem. They like to work the ball around the perimeter and inside, and every extra pass is another opportunity for the Trojans to come up with a steal.
As this game gets closer to tip off, more and more people are realizing just how good the Trojans are defensively. They completely shut down both Arkansas and Texas, a team that more than a few people thought could do some serious damage in this tournament. I think they'll still be surprised at the Trojans' tenacity on the defensive end in this game.
While Carolina may be one of the more talented teams left in the tournament, you know Tim Floyd has to be salivating over ways to defend and attack those three freshmen starters.
Ultimately, the Trojans must do two things in this game. If they can find a way to frustrate Carolina's offensive weapons and carry over the same intensity from the Texas game, they should have an excellent chance to come away with a victory. It will be an extremely difficult task, but USC is more than capable of upsetting the Tar Heels.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.