Toughness. Intensity. Sense of urgency.
Pick the word or phrase of your choice, but it all implies the same. North Carolina has struggled all season long with matching the emotional output of its opponents, although that issue has faded since switching to a small lineup 12 games ago.
It still persists, however. UNC won despite a sense of urgency – Roy Williams’ preferred description – for stretches at Georgia Tech on Feb. 19. The entire Smith Center watched as UNC failed to match Duke’s intensity in the opening minutes of the regular season finale.
On Friday, after UNC built a 20-point lead over Villanova, the Wildcats fought back and the Tar Heels didn’t offer much resistance.
“They just got more physical with us,” Williams told reporters on Saturday afternoon at the Sprint Center. “We shied away from the challenge. We always say you have to face the fire. I think we backed up away from the fire for a long, long time. “
North Carolina bowed out of the 2011 NCAA Tournament in the Elite 8 due to a lack of intensity. Harrison Barnes acknowledged following that loss to Kentucky that UNC didn’t play with the level of enthusiasm or aggressiveness needed to win. It’s been a troubling issue that’s lingered around this program ever since Tyler Hansbrough and his class graduated following the 2009 national championship run.
If the Tar Heels fail to play with the same sense of urgency that they displayed in the ACC Tournament championship game against Miami last Sunday, then their season will likely come to an end against the Jayhawks.
It’s hard to dispute Kansas’ effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor. The Jayhawks lead the country in field goal percentage defense (35.9), but while they are solid defending the 3-ball – 30.2 percent, 29th nationally – it’s more due to their length instead of a Duke-like perimeter hawking approach.
“I feel like they play a sagging defense,” junior wing Reggie Bullock said. “They don't really get out and deny the ball. They try to make you get out of your sets, limiting touches to the bigs down low.”
Kansas has been able to avoid lethal 3-point shooting teams for the most part this season. Only four Big 12 schools are shooting better than 32.5 percent on the season – Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor – and only the Cyclones and Jayhawks rank in the top-70 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense.
Iowa State averaged 86.0 points against Kansas in three meetings this season – KU is allowing 61.3 points per game – on the strength of its 3-point shooting. The Cyclones shot 39.2 percent (31-of-79) from long range in two regular season games against Kansas to force overtime.
Iowa State plays a lineup similar to North Carolina’s four-man look, but even Kansas head coach Bill Self noted one glaring difference on Saturday.
“We haven't played against a so called 4 man that can stretch it and shoot it with the range that Hairston does, not at all,” Self said. “Iowa State did have some 4 men that could make threes, but this is ridiculous how he makes threes and how many he can make, what a streak he can get on. That's a little bit different.”
North Carolina is shooting 40 percent on 8.5 made 3-pointers per game since going small, including a 44.1 mark on 10.3 made 3-pointers over its last four games.
What North Carolina has gained in scoring offense and opportunistic defense since going small has come at the loss of rebounding effectiveness.
UNC has been outrebounded in nine of its 12 games since employing its four-guard lineup. Villanova utilized its brute strength in the post to pull down 13 offensive rebounds in the second half alone on Friday night.
Kansas center Jeff Withey is a force on the boards, averaging a team-high 8.3 rebounds to go along with 136 blocks, which limits second-chance opportunities.
Kansas’ length, not its bulk, is its greatest asset in boasting a plus-6.3 rebound margin, good for 20th nationally.
North Carolina has played the nation’s fourth-best rebounding team – Maryland –
twice since going small. The Tar Heels were outrebounded in both games, but held their own with a combined 5-rebound differential. The key in those contests was strong board work by Reggie Bullock (21) and Hairston (12).
“We have to spread their team a little bit which gives us good spacing, which we want against everybody,” Williams said. “If one of our 6-foot-3 guards gets an offensive rebound and tries to shoot it over Jeff [Withey], the next thing you'll see is we'll have another 6-foot-3 assistant.”
It bodes well for UNC that there have been signs of cracks in Kansas’ rebounding ability in recent weeks. The Jayhawks have been outrebounded three times in their last seven games and have been outscored 80-62 in second-chance points over the same period.