On Mar. 20, 2004, sixth-seeded North Carolina and forward Sean May walked away from a 78-75 loss to third-seeded Texas bruised and battered. The Longhorns sent waves of sizeable post players into the game, leaving May’s tank empty when the game clock finally expired.
“They beat us up in ’04 when they put us out in the [NCAA] second-round game,” UNC assistant head coach Joe Holladay said earlier this week. “Those big guys just beat Sean up.”
Two days later, May placed an emphasis on his strength and conditioning upon returning to Chapel Hill, setting the early tone for UNC’s national championship run in ’05.
Tyler Hansbrough was never afraid of contact in carrying the Tar Heels to a pair of Final Fours and the 2009 national championship, but there are plenty of other years on Roy Williams’ resume where skeptics can point to finesse play being more prevalent than a physical style in attempting to explain a handful of NCAA Tournament flameouts.
Williams has undoubtedly heard those criticisms over the years. Following a 12-point loss at No. 14 Illinois on Nov. 30, the eighth-year UNC head coach seethed in response to a question about which team was more physically imposing.
“I don’t care if I’m the biggest bully on the block or look like Olive Oil – I want to win a basketball game,” Williams said. “It’s not a muscle beach contest. I’ve had guys before talk about how soft my teams were, but we’ve beat the [heck] out of a lot of people who were brutes.”
That wasn’t the case against Texas last season in Arlington. Despite a post rotation that included five players standing 6-foot-10 or taller, North Carolina was brutalized on the interior by 6-foot-7 Damion James and 6-foot-10, 290-pound Dexter Pittman. That duo pulled down a combined 30 rebounds – 17 offensive – in helping the Longhorns post a 60-41 rebounding advantage in their 103-90 victory.
“Dexter Pittman and Damion James just killed us,” Williams told reporters during his press conference on Friday. “Every time they shot it, they played volleyball with it until they banged it in.”
For some, the concept of physical play carries a negative connotation with thoughts of cheap shots and hard fouls. But while Williams prefers a more finesse style of play, that doesn’t mean the opposite approach is the wrong approach.
“I think Texas is like Michigan State – I’ve never insinuated anything as being negative – but they’re just big, strong guys,” said Williams, who owns a 4-3 record against Longhorns coach Rick Barnes. “They work hard in the weight room. They recruit guys that can put on weight. It’s not as pretty of an up-and-down game as maybe somebody else plays.”
Williams is quick with the disclaimer that he’s never seen a Longhorn player make a dirty play, while making the point that Texas just employs a style that simply differs from his own.
“There’s nothing wrong with any of that,” Williams said. “It’s just that they’re going to stand their ground, they’re very strong kids [and] they have good size. It’s a way that some people play basketball and there’s nothing wrong with it. People thought Tyler Hansbrough was pretty physical. They don’t say that about John Henson…
“But it’s not that different. It’s just when you lean against a wall compared to when you lean against John. John moves and the dadgum wall doesn’t.”
Pittman and James are now playing in the NBA as opposed to wearing the burnt orange, but the Longhorns still boast strength and size in 6-foot-6, 240-pound forward Gary Johnson, six-foot-8, 220-pound forward Tristan Thompson and 6-foot-10, 245-pound center Matt Hill. The Tar Heels counter with the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Henson and 7-footer Tyler Zeller and his listed 250 pounds. Offseason acquisition Justin Knox provided some much needed muscle to the rotation with a solid 240 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame.
Texas enters Saturday’s contest with a plus-7.7 rebounding margin, while UNC holds a plus-5.5 rebounding advantage despite already having been outrebounded this season by Minnesota, Illinois and Long Beach State.
But the Longhorns’ physical style extends beyond the boards. Texas is holding its opponents to 61.2 points per game on 35.6 percent shooting and has forced 149 turnovers against just 85 allowed assists.
UNC junior point guard Larry Drew told reporters on Friday that a team’s reputation of being physical or not doesn’t factor into his preparation.
“To me, it’s all the same once the ball is thrown up and the game starts,” Drew said. “Usually when guys pressure and play up on me, I can get to the basket a lot easier and it opens things up for me. But when guys don’t, like in the Long Beach State game – I feel like [Casper Ware] was sagging off me, going under the ball screens – it just changes the way I play sometimes.”
Following North Carolina’s loss to Texas last season, Deon Thompson was asked about the Longhorns’ domination on the backboards. The senior forward offered an eerie omen for the season to come, replying, “Maybe we’re not as good as everyone thought we were.”
A Tar Heel victory on Saturday would likely lead to an 11-3 record and a top-25 ranking heading into ACC play next month, while effectively proving their physicality and deleting another bad memory from the ’09-10 campaign.