Wisconsin was able to grind out a seven-point victory over Oregon Sunday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last five years. But as the Badgers continue to get farther in the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin will have to be prepared for tougher matchups and tighter games.
Wisconsin is 1-2 in its last three Sweet 16 appearances, the lone victory coming last year against Baylor in Anaheim, CA. The previous two losses came by seven points to national runner-up Butler in 2011 and by one to Syracuse in 2012. Hoping to relive some of that California magic on three days’ rest, Wisconsin (33-3) faces fourth-seed North Carolina (26-11) tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for top-seeded Wisconsin as it strives to move on to the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
Lay up: Protecting the paint
It is not surprising that Wisconsin has received production around the basket thanks to the length and size of its frontcourt, as UW has averaged 29.7 points in the paint through 36 games. But when you look at North Carolina’s stats for points in the paint, it is clear that the Tar Heels also have the ability to dominate the lane. North Carolina is averaging 37.5 points around the basket, which includes a game where it scored a staggering 72 points against East Carolina.
But it wasn’t just East Carolina that struggled to prevent North Carolina from settling for layups, as Robert Morris and Davidson - both NCAA tournament teams - allowed 60 and 44 points, respectively, in the paint. Overall North Carolina has registered 50 or more points in the paint four times this year. Even in a loss to undefeated Kentucky, the Tar Heels scored 32 of their 70 points around the basket against the Wildcats’ length and athleticism inside.
That success is tied to the play of Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks, who might not play due to the left knee sprain he suffered in Saturday’s win over Arkansas. If Meeks does not play or is limited, it appears the 6-8 Isaiah Hicks would fill the void in the starting lineup. Whether Meeks plays or not won’t make or break North Carolina’s post attack. Whether they play big or small with their lineup, the Tar Heels have demonstrated they have the ability to attack the hoop to generate offense.
The good news for Wisconsin is they only allow 25.1 points in the paint and have consistently won the post battle. The bad news is the Badgers have allowed 30-plus points in the paint over the last three games and been outscored in two of them. Success for Wisconsin is predicated on altering and blocking shots (UW averages just 3.4 blocks per game) and keep its starting big men out of foul trouble.
Mid-range jumper: Can Wisconsin win the rebounding battle?
Part of North Carolina’s post success stems from its ability to crash the offensive glass, as the Tar Heels average 13.9 offensive rebounds per game. Not having Meeks would be a blow to North Carolina since he averages a team-best 2.5 offensive rebounds a game. Although the 6-9 Brice Johnson grabs 2.3 offensive rebounds a game and the 6-6 J.P. Tokoto averages 1.6, limiting the Tar Heels to one possession can disrupt an offense that averages 77.9 points a game.
The bad news for Wisconsin is North Carolina overcame the length of Kentucky and had 18 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points, winning the rebounding battle 31-24. North Carolina is averaging 14.1 points off its offensive rebounds.
The bad news for North Carolina is Wisconsin doesn’t allow teams to get many second looks off misses, as teams are averaging 7.4 offensive rebounds and 7.4 second-chance points a game against Wisconsin. It’s a number due to the Badgers being aggressive off of a missed shot and experience of how to get better positioning to come up with a rebound. Wisconsin has only allowed eight teams to register double-digit offensive rebounds, thanks in large part to UW’s two bigs – Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes - combining for 14.5 of Wisconsin’s 33.7 rebounds a game.
Overall North Carolina is averaging 40.9 rebounds a game, which ranks second in the NCAA. Considering North Carolina has only lost the rebounding battle four times this season and Wisconsin is only allowing 28.1 rebounds a game, this will be a major subplot to watch.
3-pointer: Can Wisconsin hold the North Carolina offense in check?
North Carolina may not have a dynamite scorer who can score in bunches like Oregon’s Joseph Young, but they do have four players who average double figures in scoring. Marcus Paige leads the way with 14.1 points a game, Johnson is second with 12.9, Justin Jackson’s third at 10.6 and Meeks is last with 11.6.
While all are important, Paige makes the offense go, as he registers 4.5 assists a game to 1.9 turnovers and will be another difficult matchup for senior Josh Gasser. Not only does Paige not make many mistakes, he doesn’t settle for bad shots and finds the open teammate. Paige on the season is hitting 41.5 percent from the field and averages 10.9 shots a game. Gasser will need to consistently supply a hand in his face and it wouldn’t be surprising to see UW coach Bo Ryan opt for a similar plan like he did against Young but throwing multiple players to defend Paige throughout the game.
Thanks in large part to Paige’s ability to create and pass, Johnson and Meeks both shoot above 56 percent from the field. However, Johnson has struggled with his shot since the tournament began, seeing his shooting percentage dip to 26.6 percent and averaging just seven points a game.
Hayes will likely defend Johnson and he’ll have to continue to try and make Johnson uncomfortable in the post, much like Harvard and Arkansas did through UNC’s first two games. Hayes only averages 0.4 blocks a game but he did record a block against Oregon, which snapped a seven game streak where he went without one. Even though Hayes only has 17 blocks this season, he has done well helping Kaminsky defend the post and been physical without picking up a foul. While Hayes isn’t much of a shot blocker, he has registered a steal in each of the last six games and seven of the last eight.
North Carolina has also shown that they can be effective off of turnovers, as the Tar Heels are scoring an average of 14.7 points off the 12.5 turnovers they generate per game. Only seven times this season has North Carolina failed to force double digit turnovers. The Tar Heels will have to work to rattle Wisconsin, as the Badgers average an NCAA-low 7.4 turnovers a game, which in turn has led to opponents scoring only 6.8 points off UW miscues.