I usually go with the good old X-Factors and Matchups to Watch, however, as we get farther into the NCAA tournament, I think it is more important to focus on what the other team has to offer. Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, draws fourth-seeded North Carolina on Thursday evening and the Tar Heels have plenty to offer.
North Carolina is coming off an impressive, yet tight 87-78 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Round of 32. Marcus Paige overcame a slow first half to score 22 points, grab six rebounds and swipe five steals. Freshman forward Justin Jackson scored 16 while Wisconsin native J.P. Tokoto also put up double digits in the scoring department, adding 13 points and a superb eight assists. North Carolina forced an astounding 21 Arkansas turnovers, something the Badgers have to look out for in their matchup.
PG Marcus Paige
The junior guard is the heart and soul of Roy Williams' squad and one of its only reliable shooters. Paige provides that clutch factor that all college basketball fans tend to see in experienced floor generals, evidenced by his great second half against Arkansas. Paige averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 assists during the season, setting a personal-best with 63 swipes on defense. At 6'1 and 175 pounds, he doesn't bring added size to the position so whomever guards him won't give up too much size. Paige had double digit scoring outputs in every postseason game so far, and hasn't been held under 10 points since a March 3rd win over Georgia Tech. Because Paige happens to be the only capable sharpshooter from deep on this North Carolina team, it will be extra important for the Badger guards to extend more pressure on him out on the perimeter.
G/F J.P. Tokoto
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This will be a reunion story for Tokoto, Dekker, and Koenig, as all three players played together on the same AAU team in Wisconsin. The former four-star recruit picked the Tar Heels in a fierce battle for the talented wing between Wisconsin and North Carolina. Tokoto is one of the best athletes in the whole country and is most dangerous when out in transition. It will be interesting to see who Bo Ryan plans to defend Tokoto, as it may be possible to see Dekker and Tokoto, old friends and teammates, play head-to-head against each other. However, Justin Jackson (more on him in a moment) is a better pure scorer and not as dangerous around the hoop, so it would be smart to play the lengthier, more adept rebounder in Dekker on Tokoto rather than the smaller Josh Gasser. Tokoto has a pretty balanced game, despite not having much of a jumper at all, with a solid stat line of 8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists on average. The good thing is that placing someone like Dekker on Tokoto will limit the athletic wing's chance at grabbing offensive boards and beating his man out in transition.
G/F Justin Jackson
Jackson's size (6'8, 190 pounds) basically splits the talented freshman in half in terms of positioning. Some would call Jackson a tweener, as his height suggests a forward, but his weight indicates a guard. You do not see many forwards these days that are sub-200 pounds. The freshman hasn't found his three-point jump shot, going 0-for-2 in the win over Arkansas, and shooting a less-than-stellar 28.1 percent on the year. Jackson, like Tokoto, is super fast and can really hurt teams in transition, but can really only hurt a team inside the arc. That just happens to be one of the Badgers main strengths on defense, especially for the scrappy Gasser, who has been classified by some as a defensive stalwart for Coach Ryan.
F Brice Johnson
Due to the uncertainty of Kennedy Meeks' health heading into Thursday night's game, Johnson may be UNC's only reliable option to guard big Frank Kaminsky. This scenario could really hurt the Tar Heels. Johnson stands at 6'9 and has a very thin frame, only weighing in at 210 pounds. Imagine 7-foot, 230 pound Kaminsky backing him into the lane for easy buckets under the hoop. Talk about a mismatch. However, Johnson has proven to be a solid offensive weapon for Roy Williams, and is one of his better options in the half court offense for easy buckets. The junior forward averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 boards along with about one block per game. He hasn't faced quite a challenge like Frank the Tank, as Johnson has usually been placed on the power forward while his much stronger and beefier teammate Meeks faces the center.
F Kennedy Meeks / F Isaiah Hicks
With Meeks a game-time decision, I decided to include a big man that plays the most minutes for North Carolina off the bench: Isaiah Hicks. At 6'8 and 220 pounds, Hicks offers less height than Johnson, but may be able to hold his own better versus Frank Kaminsky. If the Tar Heels want to slow Kaminsky down without leaving a hole elsewhere in their defense, they absolutely need Meeks to be healthy enough to contribute tonight. Kaminsky has a history of struggles versus more powerful and heavier big men, like Joshua Smith of Georgetown. If Meeks is ready to play, the task of upsetting Wisconsin becomes a little less tall.
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The Tar Heel bench goes a little deeper than the one occupying Wisconsin's sideline. With a healthy Meeks, Roy Williams has two productive and capable forwards to give the starting front court a breather, in Hicks and Joel James. As I said before, Hicks is a very capable scorer but is better off defending the four. James has a similar body type to Meeks, standing a huge 6'10 and 280 pounds. His size will be an indispensable factor in defending Kaminsky and determining the outcome of the game. UNC also has two great guards at his disposal on the sideline, as Nate Britt is a spark plug off the bench and is very capable from the three-point line (37.5%) and charity stripe (87.9%). Between Britt, Joel Berry, and Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels have a second unit which can come into the game and make an immediate impact.
Key for the Badgers
I thin the most important thing for the Badgers is to attack the Tar Heels with Frank Kaminsky from all angles, bringing the seven-footer outside to tire out the big forwards that will likely guard him. Crashing the defensive glass has been Wisconsin's strength all year, but it will be especially crucial on Thursday night, as North Carolina ranks fourth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. If Wisconsin can keep hitting shots from deep and limit the Tar Heels as much as possible in transition, this can be a relatively smooth victory for Bo and company.
The Tar Heels are as good of a 4-seed as there is in the NCAA tournament, and they will give the Badgers all they can handle on both sides of the court. However, North Carolina lives and dies from two things: getting to the free throw line and the turnover battle. These two factors just happen to be two of the Badgers biggest strengths. Wisconsin ranks in the top five in fewest fouls committed per game and is the least turnover-prone team in America.
With Wisconsin most likely controlling the pace of the game, it can force North Carolina to do what it hates most, which is play in a half-court offense. A slower game adds pressure for Paige, the star point guard, to make play after play without competent three-point shooters surrounding him. The Badgers have the ability to simply outscore the Tar Heels using their efficient offense and stifling interior defense on the other end.
North Carolina's depth could prove to be a huge strength against the Badgers' extraordinary starters. So if the Badgers can count on Traevon Jackson to play in this one, as he told reporters on Wednesday, they could ease the senior floor general back into the rotation just in time. Jackson can hopefully provide a spark of the bench on offense while supplying Wisconsin with good perimeter defense on the other end.
In the end, I fully expect the Badgers to come to play on Thursday night, and grab the first win over North Carolina in program history.