It’s rare for a Roy Williams-coached squad to take the floor against a team with a higher scoring average and even rarer to play an opponent that puts up nearly six more points on the scoreboard, but that’s what the Tar Heels will encounter on Sunday afternoon.
While North Carolina ranks 17th nationally in scoring offense (77.4), Washington checks in at No. 3 with an 83.1 points-per-game average.
Plenty of teams score plenty of points, but efficiency is often the determining factor in whether those points add up to victory. Washington ranks ninth nationally (117.1) in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings – 32 spots ahead of North Carolina (111.7).
It’s practically an unwritten rule that a quality point guard is required in order to post that level of offensive production and efficiency, and the Huskies meet that obligation with junior point guard Isaiah Thomas. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder is the driving force behind Lorenzo Romar’s up-tempo system in Seattle, leading the team with 16.9 points and leading the Pac-10 with 6.0 assists per game.
“I would have a hard time finding very many people that can have a more significant impact on the game than [Thomas] does as a point guard, because he really does have a tremendous impact and most of the time a very positive impact for his team,” Williams told reporters during his NCAA Tournament press conference on Saturday.
The eighth-year UNC head coach stressed Thomas’s abilities to his team during practice earlier in the morning.
“He’s very quick,” point guard Kendall Marshall said. “He gets to the basket well; he finishes. He’s the motor of their team. It seems to me almost as if they go as he goes, so if we can slow him down, then I think we’ll be effective.”
Thomas’s overtime game-winner against Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament championship last Saturday was destined for highlight greatness, but his effectiveness was just as evident against No. 10 seed Georgia on Friday. With Washington trailing 23-16 in the first half, Thomas flipped his switch and scored 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting with five assists over the final 24 minutes of play.
The Bulldogs were able to limit Thomas’s opportunities early with a tight zone defense, but his quickness provides a difficult challenge for a Tar Heel squad that prefers man-to-man. Press him on the perimeter and he’ll drive around you; lay off and he’s liable to drill a 3-pointer over you.
“He has an in-and-out game,” guard Leslie McDonald said. “He loves to create for himself, getting into the lane and laying it up and taking jumpers, but he also knows how to create for his teammates. He gets into the lane which sucks in the defense and then he kicks it out and lets his shooters shoot the ball and gets it to his big men.”
While Thomas’s 5-foot-9 frame lends itself more to a transition style of game, the Tacoma, Wash., product is also productive in halfcourt settings.
“I love guards who can dictate the pace of the game and can change it even during the course of the game,” Williams said. “He can play a half court game and bother you, but he can also play a full court game and really bother you. He can score, and he makes everybody else better.”
North Carolina has already played two teams ranked in the top-10 in both scoring offense and adjusted offensive efficiency – Kentucky and Duke – with mixed results. Wildcats point guard Brandon Knight scored 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting (3-of-4 on 3-pointers) in the first half before Larry Drew locked him down after intermission (1-of-6 shooting, two assists, four turnovers).
Once Drew left the team, off-guard Dexter Strickland drew the task of guarding Duke’s Nolan Smith, who averaged 28 points in the three games between the old rivals.
Strickland will be saddled with the responsibility of slowing down Thomas, but Marshall and McDonald will also earn time trying to stay in front of this lightning bug. McDonald pointed to an increased awareness by the wing players to locate Thomas and hedge out and bluff to prevent him from getting into the lane and creating havoc.
One way to offset Thomas’s offensive headaches is by wearing him down on the other end of the floor. If Romar decides to put Thomas on Marshall, the Tar Heel freshman will possess a six-inch size advantage. If Strickland is the preferred option, then the UNC sophomore will be able to use his speed and quickness to force his defender into potential fouling situations.
Thomas has picked up four or more fouls in six games this season in addition to eight three-foul outings.