Track Meet on Tap

SAN ANTONIO – How deep you proceed into the NCAA Tournament is based in large part on your matchups along the way. For No. 6 seed North Carolina, Sunday's matchup with No. 3 seed Iowa State offers an opportunity to play at its preferred high-octane pace of play.

Last March, the Tar Heels' livelihood was dependent upon avoiding teams with a significant size advantage. The four-guard lineup – while effective on the perimeter and in penetration – was physically challenged on the interior defensively. Once Kansas and seven-footer Jeff Withey appeared in UNC's bracket, the season's inevitable conclusion was foretold.

Iowa State, on the other hand, thrives in a manner that's old hat for Roy Williams. The Cyclones dare their opposition to run with them, which comes as a welcome invitation for the halfcourt-challenged Tar Heels.

Fred Hoiberg's squad ranks 15th nationally in adjusted tempo (71.4), according to kenpom.com, while UNC checks in at 20th (70.7). Iowa State is the fastest team – based on tempo – left in the NCAA Tournament field with the Tar Heels next in line.

How's this for scoring in bunches – Iowa State has crossed the 90-point threshold 10 times this season.

The Cyclones have been so effective in pushing the pace that Williams expressed some envy on Saturday, several weeks after describing his own team as "slow."

"We still haven't played anywhere close to the pace that I want us to play," the 11th-year UNC head coach said. "Iowa State's playing the way I want to play. Their pace is really good. Five guys run. We're averaging 70 something a game. I had a team that averaged 92 a game one time."

UNC is actually averaging 76.4 points per game, which is the second-lowest mark for the Tar Heels during the Williams (74.5 in '09-10). Part of the issue has been a large contingent of ACC schools operating at a slower pace – nine league opponents rank in the bottom half of the country in tempo, including four north of 340th – but there's also been inconsistency at times in forcing turnovers to spark transition opportunities.

"We can play so much faster," fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald said. "You saw glimpses of that [on Friday]. We were able to push the ball. J.P. [Tokoto] was able to get out on the break and do spin-move dunks. And that's the team we want to be. We want to be an up-tempo team and push the break because that's our bread and butter."

Sophomore forward Brice Johnson described Sunday's track meet potential as refreshing, while sophomore guard Marcus Paige chose "excited" as his preferred adjective of choice.

"I feel like a lot of our ACC games especially were slow, grind it out type of games with teams that play really slow pace and like to burn 30 seconds of the shot clock.," Paige said. "So it will be interesting to finally get a switch and play a team that's going to run it right back at us because we're going to run no matter who we play."

One potential hazard, according to Williams, is UNC's transition defense. Generating points on the break is one thing; getting back to stop the ball when it hasn't been a regular occurrence this season is another.

"We have to make sure that we get back," McDonald said. "That's our biggest key – as soon as they get the rebound, they're going to be looking to push the ball just like we are, so we've got to make sure we get back."

Add in UNC's decided size advantage with the news that Iowa State's interior option – 6-foot-7, 240-pound Georges Niang – is out with a broken foot, and the matchup is likely as favorable as the Tar Heels could have hoped as a six seed.

 

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