Listen: I've been patiently waiting for this season to end so I can write up the post-mortem of the season, looking at all the ugliness of the past season and hopefully showing how it points to a bright future. That has to wait for at least one more night. After an embarrassing final game at Duke and a flame-out in the first round of the ACC tournament, the prophetic taunting of our opponents has come true: North Carolina is in the NIT.
There has been some thinking that the NIT is beneath us. This is ridiculous of course, and honestly seems to be mostly driven by the fear that we lose early on in that. This is possible of course, but at this point in the season, you would think that we've gotten over the embarrassment of losing. My thought is simple: Our team is young and the more practice our team gets in tough competitive games, the stronger we will be in the long run. It took Tyler Hansbrough and company, four years to get enough game experience to be ready to win.
Finally there is one other motivating factor, simple and delicious: Revenge. Who was one of the primary taunters of "NIT"? Virginia Tech. Who has been reduced to being nothing more than the favorite in the NIT? Virginia Tech. Who would it be so sweet to beat in the NIT? Virginia Tech. If petty vendettas are all that remain for us, aside from the dubious honor of actually winning the NIT, then petty vendettas shall rule the day. To our petty vendetta!
The first step in this process is beating William and Mary in Carmichael. Let me get this note out of the way quickly: We're playing in Carmichael! That's so awesome! I've been excitedly talking to my friends about how cool it would be if we ever would play one or two games a season in the House Where Jordan Played. The Dean Dome, as big and nice as it is kind of sucks. Most of the students sit too far away and the wine and cheese crowd that fill the lower bowl never stand and leave with five minutes left in close Duke-Carolina games. It's just disgusting. I'm so excited about the possibility of a packed and loud Carmichael.
Okay, now: William and Mary. Checking out their breakdown at the Pomeroy Ratings (something you should all be very familiar with as you fill out your brackets for you know, that OTHER tournament), you get a really clear picture of this team. They shoot the three. They shoot the three a lot. More than all but two teams in all of college basketball. They never turn over the ball. They play slower than almost every single team in college basketball. William and Mary plays a style that seems the polar opposite of UNC's offensive style. This should concern us. This should concern us, because William and Mary is playing very smartly.
The mid-major recipe for college basketball success has focused on maximizing a number of advantages that other teams undervalue and that are fairly coachable and achievable regardless of the fact that your team has inferior athletes or less overall "talent" than the other team. Slowing down the the tempo, not turning over the ball, and shooting a lot of threes are how the Davids have been slaying the Goliaths in March since the dawn of the Tournament. William and Mary are very good at all of these things. If they shoot well, they will win a lot of games, because they have done an excellent job maximizing their offensive efficiency. They are a more efficient offensive team than UNC.
So there's that. Now, how do we beat them:
William and Mary does not turn the ball over, but they also don't force opponent turnovers. This means they will have a hard time taking advantage of UNC's greatest weakness this season. They also rarely foul, which while usually a key to efficient play, may be a secret blessing considering UNC's other Achilles heel.
William and Mary's other weaknesses seem to mostly stem from the curse of a large portion of the mid-majors: lack of quality big men. Despite having one of the nation's best offensive rebounders in Marcus Kitts, as a whole, William and Mary are terrible at rebounding both offensively and defensively. Less critical, but more embarassing, the team gets blocked at an extravagant rate.
John Henson should have a field day.
What it comes down to is this: William and Mary is pretty good offensively, but North Carolina is far better defensively. If their talented, sharp-shooting guards get hot and are allowed to bomb from long range, they will win. Carolina wins if the game becomes an ugly scramble, where defensive pressure on the perimeter forces them to try their luck against the still stout Carolina front-line and John Henson blocks trigger Carolina fast-breaks while a Drew and Zeller combo force the issue by taking the ball to the hoop again and again, kicking to Graves when needed. They mostly play zone, and if they've done any scouting, will likely happily cede us some open three-point shots: Graves and Drew must make them pay, so that we can open up the post for Deon and Zeller, where, given the front-line of William and Mary, they should get us some of those buckets we've struggled with for much of the season.
We can and should win this one. I won't be surprised if we lose, but Marcus is playing with a lot of pride in the final games of his career and maybe the House of Jordan will inspire the team to new heights. Maybe. I hope.