E. Rutherford, N.J. - The Meadowlands
Est. 9:57 p.m., CBS (Jim Nantz, Billy Packer)
"The [Tar Heels] are young, but they're very, very talented. We know they want to run it and they want to push it. But so did Arkansas and ... Texas ..." -- USC head coach Tim Floyd
"We can't get caught up in triangle-and-two, face-guarding, 1-1-1-1-1 defenses, referees wearing their Southern Cal shirts -- you've got to go out and play. Not too many people will guard you the way they do." -- Roy Williams
"They outplayed us last year; we all remember that. We know what kind of team they are and how good they are capable of playing. If anything, they are better than they were last year." -- Wes Miller
Season to Date: Southern Cal has played plenty of top competition this season. The Trojans sport an 8-4 record against Top 25 teams, including two victories over Oregon, and lost at Kansas and were swept by UCLA and Washington State. Head coach Tim Floyd has undoubtedly exceeded preseason expectations with this club that was picked to finish sixth in the Pac 10.
NCAA Tournament Run: USC has thoroughly dismantled each of its first two tournament opponents. Arkansas probably didn't deserve a bid in the NCAAs, but regardless, it's a decent SEC opponent and the Trojans took them down easily, 77-60. However, a 19-point win over favored Texas was a legitimate surprise. The Trojans put five players in double figures in that second round game and controlled it from start to finish.
Last Season vs. UNC: The Tar Heels haven't forgotten the last time they faced USC, a 74-59 defeat in L.A. last season. UNC shot only 25 percent from the floor in the second half and was outscored by 20 points after halftime. "They kicked our tails in the second half worse than anybody had all year," Roy Williams recalled. "That was a nightmare ride back home looking over that stat sheet for about five hours." What Williams saw in that stat sheet was an 8-for-35 shooting performance from his perimeter players and 25 team turnovers, while allowing USC to shoot 57 percent on its three-point shots.
Perimeter Offense: To beat the Trojans, you must curb their perimeter scorers. That includes leading scorer Nick Young, a 6-6 super-athletic slasher who is also shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc, and senior wing Lodrick Stewart and his 44.0 percent three-point shooting. As a team, USC is shooting 40.0 percent on three point attempts and the majority of its offense comes from its perimeter players.
Defensive-Minded: While the Trojans have some good scorers, they are fueled by their defense. Case in point, in the two decisive NCAA Tournament wins, USC's opponents shot a combined 37.1 percent. And that's not far off from USC's impressive season averages of holding opponents to 39.0 from the field, 31.3 percent on three-pointers and 65.0 points per game. Part of that can be attributed to the aggressive, alternating defenses they'll use throughout the game. "They do a lot of funky things on the defensive end of the floor with faceguarding away from the basket and those sorts of things," Roy Williams explained.
Matchup Questions: There is an element of unpredictability that is expected when preparing for the Trojans. Tim Floyd is known for switching up player rotations depending on opponents' weaknesses, but one thing the Tar Heels know they need to plan in advance for is USC's unique lineup. The Trojans don't have a true point guard, yet run an efficient offense (thanks in part to the improved play of combo guard Gabe Pruitt) that essentially includes four wing players and a 6-9, 210-pound man in the middle. The most difficult matchup of all will be 6-6 junior Nick Young, who basically starts at the power forward spot. That may create a good post-up opportunity for UNC's big men, but on the other end of the court staying in front of the athletic wing will present a big challenge. Meanwhile, Young as well as Stewart and guard Daniel Hackett are three big, aggressive and athletic defenders that have held most opposing perimeter players in check this season. Starting center Taj Gibson has matured far beyond his freshman status at this point, as evidenced by his 17-point, 14-rebound outing in the second round against Texas. And just when you think USC is undersized, they bring three 6-10 or taller players off the bench.
Series History: UNC and USC have never met in the NCAA Tournament, but this will be the ninth overall meeting between the two teams. North Carolina is 7-1 all-time against Southern California, with the only loss coming last season.
Worthy Foe: Both Roy Williams and Tar Heel fans are familiar with USC head coach, Tim Floyd. In addition to last season's matchup, Williams while at Kansas faced Floyd (who was with Iowa State) 11 times, with the Jayhawks winning eight of those matchups. Williams also beat Floyd in the first round of the 1991 NCAA Tournament when Floyd was coaching at New Orleans. Dean Smith's Tar Heels beat Floyd's Iowa State team, 73-51, in the second round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. "He has two things that he does really, really well," Roy Williams said of Floyd. "One, he can coach; and two, he's got players that listen to what he says and try to follow what he says. He's a phenomenal coach."
Projected Starters: 34 Gabe Pruitt (6-4, 170, Jr.) – 12.4 ppg, 4.2 apg 11 Daniel Hackett (6-5, 205, Fr.) – 5.3 ppg, 2.8 apg 3 Lodrick Stewart (6-4, 210, Sr.) - 13.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg 1 Nick Young (6-6, 200, Jr.) - 17.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg 22 Taj Gibson (6-9, 210, Fr.) – 12.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg Key Reserves: 15 Dwight Lewis (6-5, 200, Fr.) – 6.0 ppg 21 Abdoulaye N'Diaye (6-11, 220, Sr.) – 3.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg 42 RouSean Cromwell (6-11, 217, So.) – 2.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg 23 Keith Wilkinson (6-10, 220, So.) – 1.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg
Hackett ....... Gibson
Pruitt ....... Young
Stewart ....... Lewis
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)