North Carolina (26-10) continues NCAA Tournament play on Sunday against Texas A&M (21-12). The seventh-seeded Aggies are coming off a 73-69 victory over No. 10 seed Providence that was close throughout but not as close as the final score indicated, with A&M up 11 points with just 27 seconds to go in the game before the Friars added some consolation buckets. The second-seeded Tar Heels defeated Lipscomb, 84-66, on Friday for Roy Williams' 28th consecutive opening-round victory.
About the Aggies
Texas A&M finished almost exactly in the middle of the SEC this season, tying for seventh while earning the No. 8 seed in their conference tournament. The Aggies started the season 11-1 — including wins over West Virginia, USC and Buffalo and a three-point loss to Arizona — before injuries and inconsistent play derailed the team en route to a 9-9 conference record and an opening-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama.
Texas A&M's biggest strength on the court is its size. Likely NBA-lottery pick Robert Williams is 6-foot-10, 241 pounds, while center Tyler Davis is 6-foot-10, 264. Even "small" forward D.J. Hogg is listed at 6-foot-9, 210 pounds. Even getting past the starters, head coach Billy Kennedy can turn to 6-foot-10 senior Tonny Trocha-Morelos for quality minutes.
The Aggies' size causes a lot of problems on defense, where their length can really disrupt passing and driving lanes.
"Our length and size is something they've not seen a whole lot of," Kennedy said. "Until you go through it and see it, you know, it's a tough experience."
Four to the team's five starters average in double figures scoring. The lone exception is T.J. Starks, a freshman guard who took over for grad transfer Duane Wilson midway through the season. He's been described by his teammates as a score-first point guard, and in many ways he's the key for this team playing well. He scored 15 points on Friday, drilling two threes to lead the team.
"When our guards make shots and take care of the ball, we're hard to beat because Robert Williams and Tyler Davis are a load in the post," Kennedy said.
So what's the gameplan?
Things seem to be staying the same for the Tar Heels as far as game play goes, or at least as much the players and coaches are willing to let on. Give a great team effort rebounding the ball, spread out to give the wing players space to get shots and play good man-to-man defense.
"I have to chip in a little more defensively and on the boards and just more (on the) interior tomorrow," said Cam Johnson, who will guard Hogg on Sunday. "Even the guy that plays the three is around my size. He might even be a little bit taller than me, we'll find out tomorrow if he's really 6-foot-9 or 6-foot-8.
"I don't mind it. If there's somebody my height playing me, I like that. It's better than somebody 5-foot-10 trying to get up under my legs the whole time."
It's a bit of a role reversal for the Tar Heels, as it has been so many times this season. UNC, with essentially a four-guard lineup as far as skills, going up against a team with the top-end post players the Tar Heels are used to having. That can lead to some advantages this team can exploit.
"Any team with that many bigs, they kind of tend to stay inside," Johnson said. "So if we can kind of pull them out, open things up, kind of try to get them to play defense in a way that they're not used to playing or get them to guard actions they're not used to guarding — I think that can help us out a lot."
Roy Williams is familiar with these sort of strategies for solving size, having faced them so often in his coaching career. Some teams spread out and milk the clock — "That doesn't really fit me," Williams said — while others drive to the basket, which brings in a whole different set of issues, particularly when these teams all have good size at the guard position.
"Their perimeter guys (have) a lot of size," Williams said. "You got to get them off of you before you try to take an outside shot, so you got to take — create some space with your dribble and try to take them to the basket and go right by them and not try to stretch it out. Because against a shot blocker, you do all this dipsy-do stuff and you stretch it out, you just give them space to find it and block it."
UNC will need players like Luke Maye, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks to step up big-time in the post. But perimeter guys such as Joel Berry, Johnson and Theo Pinson may be the key to the Tar Heels' play against teams with this size. A&M has plenty of flaws, including a poor offensive efficiency and not great three-point shooting, which plays to UNC's defensive strengths.
The Upset Heard 'round the world
They all were watching it with you. You, on your couch, in a sports bar, or, if you were lucky, inside the arena itself. The Tar Heels? They witnessed the University of Maryland, Baltimore County upset No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the mail room of the team's hotel.
"That was one of those games where you're like, 'Where where you when this happened?'" Pinson said. "We couldn't understand what was going on."
And yes, the Tar Heels shared your shock and awe at the first No. 16 seed win in men's tournament history.
Luke Maye: "I felt like Virginia coming into the tournament was the hottest team out of anybody ... You got to give everything you have and UMBC just played better, and that's what it comes down to."
Kenny Williams: "UMBC did a great job doing what they wanted to do, driving and kicking and knocked down their shots. They executed their game plan perfectly, and, you know, it was just surprise to go see Virginia give up that many points on defense, honestly."
Theo Pinson: "I don’t know his name, but No. 33 (Arkel Lamar) shot the three in the corner when he clearly should have brought it out. When he hit that one, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s over. I know they are flustered over there (on the Virginia bench).'"
Roy Williams: " I was almost as stunned by the way Coach Odom handled himself. He was so daggone — Jesus Christ, son, do you realize what just happened? I'd be running around acting a little crazy or something."