This is a team that doesn't shoot the three-pointer. After the bomb-happy William and Mary and Mississippi State, I was beginning to worry that the NIT field might be solely populated by "live-by-the-three-die-by-the-three" fanatics whose inconsistency was problematic enough to stop them from making the NCAA field, but still occasionally deadly enough, and, likely to kill some good teams every once and a while. UAB takes a little less than the average number of threes, and, fortunately, they shoot them pretty terribly, averaging around 31.1% as a team.
So, they are distinctly different from William and Mary and Mississippi State. Well then, what are they like? Let's go to the numbers.
In essence, UAB is Elijah Millsap, a dynamic small forward who scores in a myriad of ways, but mainly by putting his head down and getting to the free throw line. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals. The rest of the team's job is to play superior defense and hit open shots or draw a foul and then take that open shot at the free throw line. If you are looking for an NBA comparison, the UAB Blazers have a stat profile a bit like the early-Lebron-era Cavaliers.
Millsap is good, and we are by no means done talking about him, but the main obstacle with the Blazers is the defense. Ken Pomeroy places them as the 25th best defense in the country, which is way better than the majority of the teams in the NCAA field. Their defense is good on every front. They stop 3's, they stop 2's, they stop offensive rebounding, and they force turnovers. They do this all by playing stifling man to man defense and not fouling terribly often (with some exceptions). Our offense has looked pretty uninspired against quality defenses, and against a quality defense that forces turnovers, there is a chance that we will look completely impotent.
They key here seems to be hammering it inside when we can. The second banana on this team is Howard Crawford, a talented power forward who does a good deal of scoring (though, weirdly, not too much rebounding). Crawford is foul-trouble prone. So is Kenneth Cooper, their starting center. This means that it's Deon time. Deon's crafty post-moves and ability to draw fouls can get their front line in a lot of trouble and give us scoring opportunities at the line. In this case, the best defense might turn out to be good offense: While UAB has a relative amount of size on the bench, none of their reserve big men are big scorers, rebounders, or really much of anything aside from bench warmers. Now, in the event that Ovie Soko or Cameron Moore end up burning us, I want to apologize for jinxing everything.
Now let's talk about their offense: It works because they get to the line. They are as good at getting free throws as any team we have played this year. In fact, they are way better at it than any other team we have played this year. Here's the comparison: Deon has taken 148 free throws, Ed Davis has taken 132, and Larry Drew has taken 96. It drops off steeply after that. On UAB, Millsap has taken 230, Crawford has taken 140, Aaron Johnson has taken 139, Cooper has taken 112. Look at Millsap's alone and you know they do this way better than us. If you want to get all picky and look at tempo-free FT rate, you get to learn some fun facts like, 5'8" Aaron Johnson draws fouls at a rate equivalent to Ed Davis (who, you might recall, isn't playing due to injury). The point remains: They draw fouls and get to the line. The question is, how do we stop them?
Well, some good news. Carolina doesn't foul. Hardly ever. We are ridiculously good at not fouling. Marcus Ginyard, who will undoubtedly get the task of guarding Millsap, happens to be the very best on the team at not fouling (how you feel about this match-up depends a lot in if you still believe Marcus is an elite defender). So, who knows, we might actually be able to neutralize some of their foul line advantage simply by virtue of the way we play. But, just in case, I have a gambit:
We stay back to prevent the drive and allow a number of open looks at the three for basically every player on their team but designated-sharpshooter Jamarr Sanders. Fouls are often committed when a player is playing real close on a ball handler who then uses his quickness to get by; once he's slipped by, the only recourse is fouling them. So, we play them for the drive, staying back and staying in front of them, while generally conceding the three-point shot. In fact, in most cases, we should bait them into taking the three.
Jamarr Sanders is basically Will Graves. He's a good, but not great shot, and over the course of the year has jacked up and made about the same number of threes as Will. We'll guard him closely, hope he doesn't get hot, and take our medicine. Aaron Johnson is a pretty good shot too, but it's clearly secondary to his driving prowess, so the best we can do is hope that Drew and Strickland's can stay in front of him and that their size bothers the little guy, and keeping him off his game. But let's talk about the other three-point shooters on their team: George Drake is UAB's sixth man, and a gunner off the bench. He has taken 107 three-pointers on the season, which would make him the second-leading shooter if he were on UNC. He has taken 107 shots; he has made an anemic 24. He is shooting 22% from beyond the arc. That's a shot that we can live with, and should potentially encourage. Even more interesting is that while Milsapp likes to play like a mini-Lebron a lot of the time, he apparently also has the instincts of a mini-Josh-Smith. Milsapp, who has the ball on most plays, apparently has a problem with ill-advised threes. He has taken 77 three pointers this season and converted them at a not-exactly-blistering rate of 24.7%. So, all I'm saying is that we take a step back and clog the lane when we can. If driving becomes so frustrating that Millsap falls in love with his long shot, then, well, we stand a good chance at winning.
It's admittedly risky. If they get hot, we got burned. That said, taking away the shot they are good at shooting and forcing them to take bad shots is, over time, a pretty good strategy by the numbers.
In summary, we need to hammer the ball inside, focus on stopping the drive and avoiding fouls, and exploit their thin bench by getting their starters in foul troubles and speeding up the game (I didn't talk about this, but this team plays at a slowish pace and hardly plays any of the bench players so the more we can wear out the starters, the better). We still are the underdogs in this one, but if we execute our game plan smartly, if Marcus Ginyard is actually as good on defense as we've seen him be in the past, and, frankly, if Tyler Zeller is able to play (season winning percentage with Zeller: 66%; without Zeller 20%: (!)), I like our chances better than I did against Mississippi State.
So there's that.
And here's this: Things John Henson Should Eat This Summer.