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March 24, 2013

Opposing view: KU vs. UNC

To get a look from the opposing side we caught up with Adam Powell, the publisher of Tar Heel Illustrated. He breaks down North Carolina and gives his thoughts on today's match-up against the Jayhawks.

Take us through the season how North Carolina has played?

It was clearly going to be a rebuilding year for the Tar Heels after losing four out of five starters to the NBA, and things got off to a particularly rough start as Roy Williams stubbornly stuck with a bigger lineup through half the season despite the kinds of personnel limitations that didn't allow that lineup to be in line with the same kind of Tar Heel team he's won recent NCAA titles and made deep postseason runs with.

Carolina was exposed early in a Maui Invitational loss to Butler and then road blowouts in November and December at Indiana and Texas. Things turned around a little bit for Carolina after a series of home wins, including a big win over UNLV n Chapel Hill, but then they regressed with a loss at Virginia and a couple weeks later at N.C. State.

The low point came in early February, as the Tar Heels went down to Miami and got absolutely embarrassed, one of three losses the 'Canes gave UNC this winter. After the 87-61 debacle in Coral Gables, Coach Williams finally gave in and inserted arguably the best overall player on the team, sophomore wing P.J. Hairston, into the starting lineup to replace fellow second-year player Desmond Hubert, a raw forward who plays solid defense and rebounds but struggles to put the ball in the basket.

Hairston provided an immediate spark to the Tar Heels, as they led for most of the game and nearly pulled off the upset of No. 2 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium four days after they lost to Miami. From there Carolina reeled off a six-game winning streak before dropping the regular season finale in the Smith Center against the Blue Devils to finish the regular season 22-9 and 12-6 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, good for third place in the standings.

Carolina went to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament and handled Florida State and Maryland, but then met Miami once again and fell short this past Sunday before learning they'd be heading back to the Show Me State for the second straight year (they were in St. Louis for last year's Midwest Regional of course). They come into Sunday's game against Kansas at 25-10 overall.

When are they at their best?

Carolina has been at its best this season when they're spreading other teams out in such a way as they're getting easy looks along the perimeter and making those shots, and they're getting balanced scoring from multiple players. UNC likes to play at a fast tempo and they really can get rolling when they make some defensive stops and get moving up court. The guards have done a decent job of setting up the shooters on the team.

This isn't the UNC team with the 'sure thing' big man, the type of guys led Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough that led them to titles in 2005 and 2009. Guys that you know were going to get 20 and 10 no matter what.

James Michael McAdoo can be that kind of guy for the Tar Heels, but he hasn't done it game in and game out the way that May and Hansbrough did. Maybe it's not fair to compare him to those UNC legends, but at North Carolina, just as at Kansas, you're always compared to the past, and the fact is that Sunday may be McAdoo's last moment at Carolina to bring his 'A' game and put to rest any doubts that he can't be a go-to leader for the Tar Heels in the postseason.

An excellent face-up player, McAdoo thrives in tempo when he's able to get going towards the basket. He's a solid shooter off the dribble and spotting up, and when he's connecting, he has the potential to open things up along the perimeter for his teammates. When McAdoo is playing well as well as shots falling from the perimeter from guys like P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, this UNC team is not only at its best, but it's pretty dangerous. That's how it went last Sunday against Miami and the Tar Heels came within a couple possessions of beating one of the nation's premier teams.

What do other teams do to take them out of their game?

One of Roy Williams' defensive mantras is 'force them into one bad shot,' and that's really been the killer for his own team this season. It's just a different kind of North Carolina team. They aren't loaded with big, rugged forwards this year. So they're much more dependent on their long-range bombers like P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, as well as others like freshman point guard Marcus Paige and key junior reserve Leslie McDonald, making three-pointers. And when those guys aren't making shots and nobody is getting offensive rebounds, it hasn't been pretty.

At perhaps no other point in Williams' head coaching career has one of his teams been more dependent on outside shooting. As Kansas fans can attest from his tenure in Lawrence, he always seemed to have at least one stud big man to compliment his wings and point guards. And that's how it's been at Carolina even since he came back with exception of this year. But now with the smaller lineup this team isn't nearly as capable of rebounding on a possession-by-possession basis as they were when Hubert was starting earlier in the season, even though Hairston and Bullock do a nice job for wings at crashing the boards. The ol' coach had to sacrifice rebounding and post presence in order to get points on the scoreboard, which Hairston can provide in bunches.

If Kansas's defense consistently limits the Tar Heels on Sunday to one outside shot attempt that bricks off the rim and the Jayhawks clean the glass, they could own UNC in a way that would once again be quite satisfying to KU fans who have already been fed smorgasbords of ironic joy at their old coach's expense at the Alamodome in 2008 and in the Edwards Jones Center last year. Carolina's chances of victory lie in making three-pointers and finding a way to pick up rebounds on both ends of the court. They simply can't beat KU if they don't hit a lot of those three-point attempts, and aggressively hit the boards and create some second-chance opportunities.

Who are the key players to watch?

Freshman point guard Marcus Paige has really grown over the course of the season, and he hit a shot the other night against Villanova that was a microcosm of how far he's come. With UNC leading by just one point in the final two minutes after leading by 20 points in the first half, it was time for the Tar Heel rookie to blow it after Carolina had just turned it over on two key possessions. Only Paige didn't. Acting like a seasoned veteran, he calmly stepped up and without hesitation buried a wide-open three, giving Carolina a four-point lead and strategic control as Villanova was soon forced to foul. If not for that shot, it may very well be Villanova that the Jayhawks are thinking about right now.

If Paige has a great game against Kansas, the Tar Heels have a chance. He hasn't played so great at different points against really good opposing teams, but he was pretty solid in last weekend's ACC Tournament final going head-to-head against Miami's Shane Larkin, who a lot of people thought deserved being ACC Player of the year this season. UNC realistically is going to struggle against Kansas if Paige struggles, but that's typically the case when you're talking about the point guard spot.

Did you think they should have earned a higher seed?

It's easy to argue that UNC should have earned a higher seed based on certain factors, but then there are other factors that justify the eight seeding. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that they were once again paired with Kansas, setting up a third NCAA Tournament meeting in six seasons, and having to go play them in Kansas City.

Carolina's RPI was 17 at the end of the season, which coach Williams pointed out earlier in the week merited higher than an eight seed based on simple math, but clearly the Selection Committee took into consideration UNC's blowouts at Indiana and Miami, as well as the fact that they really didn't beat anyone of high distinction all season.

UNC beat a handful of NCAA teams including UNLV, N.C. State, and now Villanova, but they were swept by two seeds Miami and Duke and crushed at top seed Indiana, while also suffering losses to NCAA-bound NCSU and Butler, and bad losses to NIT-bound Virginia and even worse Texas, who finished with a losing record.

Although UNC got itself tournament-eligible by beating people like Florida State, Maryland, Boston College, and Clemson in their gyms, only the Terrapins are still playing, albeit in the NIT.

The Tar Heels have a case for maybe a six seed but since they weren't ranked almost all season, it's season to argue why they wouldn't have been in the 20-24 window that earns that seeding. At the same time, the fact that they went 8-2 down the stretch means for some that they should have gotten hi. From where I stand, I think they would have gotten a higher seed if they had beaten Miami in the championship of the ACC Tournament but that isn't the way it went down. Now you just have to go out and play knowing that if you can beat Kansas in Kansas City, there's every reason to believe a run to the Final Four is there for the taking.

What are the keys for the Tar Heels to beat Kansas?

A lot of things will have to go Carolina's way. If they are making a bunch of shots and forcing tempo through its defense, it could get stressful for Kansas. There's absolutely no question that Williams is fed up about being taken down by the Jayhawks, but the question is whether or not this year he has the kind of team that can take them down in a favorable atmosphere such as Kansas City. It would definitely help Carolina if they can get off to a fast start like they did against Villanova and when they played at Duke, which would help keep the partisan crowd out of the game.

UNC is used to playing in front of hostile crowds and aside of the Duke game they didn't respond particularly well. They were especially rattled by opposing crowds in places like Bloomington, Austin, Charlottesville, and Raleigh. This isn't exactly like playing in Lawrence, but it's the next-closest thing. It would be like KU coming to play UNC in Greensboro or Raleigh.

For Carolina to have its best chance of beating the Jayhawks they need to show from the outset that they're there to play and don't let what happened in the 2008 Final Four happen again. Because this isn't the kind of UNC team that will be able to make a comeback from a 40-12 deficit and have a shot to tie the game like they did in San Antonio five years ago.

How do you see the match-up and your thoughts on the game?

UNC has been playing much better over the past month and clearly they can hang with Kansas. The question is can they finish them off? Kansas is the more experienced and the more all-around better team, and after an off night Friday against Western Kentucky, one has to wonder if they're not due for a breakout game. Carolina has to bring a little swagger into this matchup, knowing that they're essentially playing a road game. Jayhawk fans have probably been gleefully picking up Kansas State leftover tickets since they got knocked out, and there's little doubt who the crowd will be going for Sunday. UNC can win if they make shots and play excellent defense. They know they're going to be giving up some rebounds to Kansas, but it can't be an absurd margin like it was against Villanova.

Bill Self has had Roy Williams' number even when arguably Carolina has had the better team. Self's teams have been better when it counted. This year it's easy to argue Self's team is way better, so maybe it's UNC's turn to play the spoiler. History shows UNC is more than capable of toppling top seeds, as they took down Oklahoma when the Sooners were a No. 1 seed in 1990, and more recently they took down Stanford when they were a No. 1 seed on the way to the Final Four in 2000.

In the end, it's hard to imagine UNC going to Kansas City and beating this Kansas team that's poised to once again potentially make a run at the whole thing. I give the edge to the Jayhawks by five points, 77-72.

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