Tuesday, April 7, 2009

North Carolina was the real "team of destiny"

There may not be a better coach in the country at breaking down a team's weaknesses than Tom Izzo. The guy has an unbelievable ability to put together a game plan that will maximize the Spartan's strength and his opponent's weaknesses.

Against Louisville, the Spartans played a slower game, focusing on tough defense and limiting turnovers and bad shots, because Izzo knew that the key for Louisville was getting into their press after a score. The result? Louisville scored 13 points in a 15 minute second half stretch.

Against UConn, Izzo had the Spartans going up and down the floor, knowing that forcing the Huskies to play a transition game would minimize the Thabeet effect. It worked, as the big fella had just six boards and two blocks.

But Izzo came up blank against the Heels.

Why was that?

Because UNC did not have a weakness this year. Not one.

The Heels celebrate their title.
(photo credit: Getty Images)

They have the best point guard in the country. Their shooting guard and their power forward are both in the top three at their position. Their small forward is going to be picked in June's draft. Their center is going to average a double-double as the focal point of the offense next year. Their first guard off the bench is the ultimate glue guy, while their first big off the bench would start for just about any other team in the country.

But talent can only get you so far if your team does not play well in its system (see UConn circa 2006).

That's the thing. UNC's players were perfectly suited to their secondary break offense. In a nutshell, this is how the UNC break works (my college squad actually ran the same system). Make or miss, your are looking for three guys to get out and run the floor - your two wings players to get out wide and sprint to each corner, and one of your big guys (whoever does not get the rebound or take the ball out of bounds) to sprint to the block. You look for your point guard to take an outlet pass and push the ball up the floor, trying to hit an open wing as early as possible.

If nothing is there on the initial push, the Heels look to swing the ball around the perimeter in what is called a four-out, one-in set (the big that threw the outlet trails the play and is the fourth). This is what is known as the secondary break, and is what makes UNC so dangerous. The theory behind the secondary break is that, by pushing the ball up the floor, you catch the defense out of sync and not set. Maybe Hansbrough beat his man down the floor and has a seal on a guard under the rim. Maybe the defense forgot to locate Danny Green, and he is left open for a three. Maybe the opposing point guard is retreating and off balance, which allows Lawson to get into the lane. It goes on and on.

Ty Lawson finds Tyler Hansbrough for a lay-up in the second half.
(photo credit: Getty Images)

Think about that. UNC's offense is essentially designed to beat the defense down the floor, and then take advantage of mismatches on the offensive end. When you have seven guys on your team with a legitimate chance to be an NBA draft pick, exploiting mismatches becomes pretty easy.

Yes, the Heels offense has been phenomenal from day one. No one can argue that. But the knock on UNC throughout the season was that they didn't defend. They gave up penetration too easily, especially to high-scoring lead guards.

But what once was a weakness for this team became a strength down the stretch.

Take a look at their last three games. Oklahoma was 2-19 from three, Villanova was 5-27, and Michigan State was 7-23.

Why did they struggle so much from three? The casual observer would say that it was because these three teams forced shots from the perimeter. Which is true.

The reason, however, that they had to force so many tough threes was a direct result of the Tar Heel defense. As I said before, what was once a weakness had become a strength for this team. No one was able to get penetration against UNC during the NCAA tournament. Not Willie Warren. Not Scottie Reynolds or Corey Fisher. And not Kalin Lucas.

Ty Lawson's eight steals contributed to the six turnovers committed by Kalin Lucas.
(photo credit: Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press)

Those are three very talented basketball players that I just mentioned. Their lines against UNC?
  • Willie Warren: 18 points, 3 assists, 4 turnovers, 6-16 from the floor, 2-9 from three, 4 points with six minutes left in the game.
  • Scottie Reynolds/Corey Fisher: 30 points, 11-37 from the floor, 3-15 from three.
  • Kalin Lucas: 14 points, 7 assists, 6 turnovers, 4-12 from the floor.
Not exactly what you would expect from those three guys.

For the game, UNC forced 21 turnovers and scored 25 points off of them. And more than anything, that was the difference in this game. UNC jumped out to a 55-34 lead at halftime, scoring 17 points off of 13 Spartan turnovers. Yes, UNC's break was vicious last night, but would it have been anywhere near as effective if they Heels hadn't forced those 13 turnovers?

(Hint: the answer's no.)

I am 24 years old. I have been a huge college basketball fan as long as I can remember. But as much basketball as I watched growing up, I couldn't tell you too much about the teams that played before this decade. I think it would be safe to say that my first real memory of college basketball, one where I was cognizant of what was happening beyond a nice dunk or a big three, was the game between Duke and UConn in the 1999 title game.

I never saw Ewing's Georgetown teams play or any of Wooden's UCLA teams. I was in kindergarten when UNLV was running rebellious all over the country, and in first grade when Duke usurped the throne. I fully admit that I have a limited firsthand knowledge of college basketball's historically great teams.

But in my short time as an avid college hoops follower, this UNC team that played in the NCAA tournament is the best team I have ever seen play. They are unstoppable offensively, punching you in the mouth with an early run, then taking the air out of the ball and executing you to death in the second half. They have talent at every position on the floor. As many as seven guys from this team could end up being drafted. And to end the year, they started playing some of the best perimeter defense in the country.

Izzo said it best. Before the title game, Izzo was quoted as saying "If we play good and they play good, we're losing." What happened? UNC played a perfect first half, taking a 55-34 lead, and erasing any doubt as to who would win the title 10 minutes into the game.

Yeah, I know. Michigan State was playing in Detroit, trying to shine a light on a downtrodden city and its suffering inhabitants.

But this UNC team returned for guys that would have been picked in the 2008 NBA Draft. Why? Because they wanted this national title.

The Heels were last night's real team of destiny.

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