One common theme between Wisconsin’s first two opponents is that Coastal Carolina and Oregon were able to score, each averaging over 70 points a game. It will be no different when Wisconsin faces fourth-seed North Carolina for the third time in program history in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
Entering the game averaging 77.9 points a game, the Tar Heels rank in the top five of every statistical offensive category in the ACC. In addition to shooting 47.6 percent from the field, North Carolina has displayed the ability to make shots from the perimeter, as they shoot 37 percent from 3-point range and make 4.7 3s a game.
Despite North Carolina’s success on offense this year, Wisconsin contained both tournament opponent’s offenses in the opening weekend. Coastal Carolina did reach its team point average, but it didn’t occur until Coach Bo Ryan pulled his starters in the final minutes. Wisconsin held Oregon to 65 points, 10 points below its scoring average.
The main question surrounding North Carolina as they prepare to play Wisconsin on Thursday night is the health of Kennedy Meeks, who sprained his left knee in the win over Arkansas Saturday. Meeks is one of four players for North Carolina who averages double figures in scoring (11.6 points a game) but makes a bigger impact for the Tar Heels with his 7.4 rebounds per game.
One area where Meeks has excelled is consistently giving North Carolina second chances, as he averages 2.5 offensive rebounds a game. Overall North Carolina averages 13.9 offensive rebounds a game and there have been only four games this year where the Tar Heels didn’t reach double digits on the offensive glass. If Meeks can’t play or is limited, it will be up to Brice Johnson to pick up the load, as he leads the team in overall rebounds (7.9). Outside of effectively collecting offensive rebounds, North Carolina averages 40.8 rebounds a game.
“They're not completely ruling him out and they're not saying he can play,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of Meeks on his radio show Monday night. “Let me say it that way, I don't think we'll have him, but we'll just have to wait and see.”
As important as Meeks is when it comes to keeping possessions alive, Marcus Paige is the player that helps make the Tar Heels go. Paige ranks first on the team in points per game (14.1), assists (4.5), and steals (1.7), as well as shooting 41.5 percent from the field and a team-best 39.1 percent 3-point shooting percentage. Wisconsin received a test from Oregon’s Joseph Young in the round of 32, and Paige will provide plenty of different challenges with the ability to control the tempo, as it is difficult to speed him up when he has the basketball in his hands.
As North Carolina showed in its third-round victory over Arkansas, the Tar Heels are comfortable going with a smaller lineup when injuries or foul troubles perk up because of Paige’s ability.
“It was four little guys on the court,” Paige told reporters after the 87-78 win in Jacksonville, Fla. “We did a good job of handling the pressure. That made it easier, with all guards in the game.”
The Badgers will also have to be defensively sound against Justin Jackson (10.6 ppg) and J.P. Tokoto (8.4 ppg) and be prepared for the Tar Heels’ deep bench, as five reserves average over 10 minutes per game.
Williams has found success against Ryan during his North Carolina tenure, beating Wisconsin in the 2005 Elite Eight on his way to a national championship and at home in the 2011 ACC-Big Ten challenge. Both matchups were decided by an average of 4.5 points. Not surprisingly, Williams has also had success in the NCAA tournament, holding a 65-22 record with seven Final Fours and two NCAA titles.
But Ryan is no pushover in the postseason. Guiding Wisconsin to seven Sweet 16s in his career, including four in the past five years, Ryan is 22-13 in the postseason as Wisconsin’s head coach.
The North Carolina-Wisconsin matchup was one many fans were expecting to happen in late November in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas, but the Tar Heels’ opening-game loss to Butler cleared the path for Wisconsin to win the preseason tournament title. Despite North Carolina being another difficult challenge, Wisconsin has improved to 15-2 against teams in the NCAA tournament field this year.