In 2009, North Carolina beat Villanova in the Final Four before going on to win its fifth national title. In 1985, the Wildcats downed the Tar Heels in the Elite Eight en route their lone NCAA championship. Neither program has won it all since. That will change tonight, when North Carolina takes on Villanova at NRG Stadium in Houston after wins over Syracuse and Oklahoma, respectively, in the national semifinals on Saturday night. The game tips off at 9:18 p.m. ET and will be televised on TBS. Below SI.com breaks down how the Tar Heels and the Wildcats matchup on the perimeter and in the frontcourt.
North Carolina: There was plenty of talk before Saturday's semifinals about NRG Stadium’s purported impact on shooting numbers, and even while beating the Orange by 17 points, the Tar Heels seemed to validate those concerns. They clanked three after three, going 0-for-10 in the first half and finishing just 4-for-17 overall in the 83-66 win. Even sophomore Joel Berry, North Carolina’s best long-range shooter this season at 36.8%, had a bad night from beyond the arc (0-of-4). The good news is that Marcus Paige, whose nasty shooting slump during his senior season was well-chronicled in this space, sank three of his seven tries from distance to continue his improved play in the NCAA tournament, during which he has shot 47.1% from outside after making just 32.3% all season before that. North Carolina has scored an average of 0.17 more points per possession with him on the floor in the NCAAs.
Of course, Paige has gotten plenty of help. Over the Tar Heels’ last three games, Berry has converted at a 71% clip inside the arc and handed out 23 assists while committing only two turnovers. Fellow sophomore Justin Jackson, a 6'8" wing, is fresh off his second consecutive game with at least 11 points on 60% two-point shooting. And a third sophomore, 6'6" swingman Theo Pinson, made crucial plays to help the Tar Heels beat Notre Dame in the Elite Eight and then hit a critical three-pointer to help keep Syracuse at bay in the second half on Saturday.
Still, there’s a decent chance North Carolina won’t be bringing another trophy back to Chapel Hill if its outside shooting doesn’t perk up against the Wildcats. Now, the Tar Heels have taken only 26.7% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc this year, which ranks 338th nationally, and they've hit only 31.9% of those attempts (294th). That is, uh, not great, but North Carolina can do better than the 23.5% it sank against Syracuse—provided the three-point-hating gargoyles living in the roof of NRG Stadium decide to look more favorably upon coach Roy Williams’s team tonight.
Villanova: Those gargoyles had no influence over Villanova on Saturday night. In one of the most impressive offensive performances in tourney history, the Wildcats shot 61.1% from behind the three-point line (and 71.4% overall) and rang up 1.51 points per possession on the Sooners, which ranked 18th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Senior Ryan Arcidiacono (3-of-4 from three-point range) and junior Kris Jenkins (4-of-7), in particular, ensured Oklahoma had no hope of even making it a competitive game.
Yet neither Arcidiacono nor Jenkins was the best player on the floor Saturday night. That distinction belongs to junior Josh Hart, who recorded 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting (he made his only try from beyond the arc) with eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in 30 minutes. Unlike Arcidiacono and Jenkins, Hart is more of a threat inside than outside; he finishes 75% of his attempts at the rim. This is part of what makes Villanova—which ranks second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency—so tough to guard: the Wildcats can score from anywhere. And while the aforementioned trio of upperclassmen can stretch North Carolina’s defense to its breaking point, they’ll get plenty of support from a few youngsters. Sophomore Phil Booth chipped in 10 points off the bench against the Sooners after going scoreless against No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight; freshman Mikal Bridges just keeps making big plays; and five-star frosh Jalen Brunson has taken better care of the ball, averaging just one turnover per game over the last four outings after coughing it up on 26.1% of his possessions during Big East play. Villanova's group of guards and wings is talented and versatile, and if those players shoot anywhere near as well as they did against Oklahoma, the Tar Heels will be in for a long night.
North Carolina: Here’s the thing about UNC's poor outside shooting: It usually doesn't matter all that much. That’s because the Tar Heels are so proficient at scoring in other ways: 61.5% of their points this season have come on two-point shots, good for fourth in the country, and they’ve converted 54.4 % of those field goal attempts (16th). Senior Brice Johnson, a first-team All-America, is a terrific finisher around the basket (87.8% this season) and junior Kennedy Meeks has turned his season around at exactly the right time, averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds over the past three games after combining for six points and nine rebounds in the first two NCAA tournament games. North Carolina’s other rotation big man, junior Isaiah Hicks, has difficulty staying out of foul trouble, but when he's on the court he's highly effective. Hicks has taken nearly half of his shots near the rim this season and connected at a 77% rate. The Tar Heels are also adept at giving themselves more opportunities than their opponents. North Carolina rebounds 40.6% of its missed shots, the third highest mark in the country, and it has scored more points on putbacks (387) this season than any other team in Division I.
The Tar Heels are better on offense (first in the country in adjusted efficiency, according to kenpom.com) than defense (23rd), but they excel at preventing opponents from doing what they do well. North Carolina forces a lot of misses inside the three-point line; ACC teams only made 43.4% of their twos against the Tar Heels, the lowest mark in the conference, and they’ve allowed an average of only 0.69 points on post-ups this season, which ranks in the 93rd percentile nationally. North Carolina can take comfort in its ability to control the paint on both ends of the court, and if its threes start falling after that awful showing against the Orange, that’s a huge bonus.
Villanova: The most attention paid to Daniel Ochefu on Saturday night came when Villanova’s senior center briefly limped off the court with an apparent ankle injury, the same problem that hindered him earlier this month. He returned to the game and recorded a quiet 10 points and six rebounds, an unremarkable stat line, and appears to be fully healthy for Monday night. Don’t discount his importance to the Wildcats against North Carolina. He’s Villanova’s highest-volume interior scorer (74% of attempts at the rim this season), its best rebounder (his defensive rebounding rate of 28% was the best in Big East play) and its top shot-swatter (7.3 block percentage in Big East play, the fourth-highest in the conference). Nearly half of Ochefu’s offense comes in post-up situations, but he’s more adept at finishing pick and rolls, averaging 1.57 points, which ranks in the 98th percentile nationally.
Ochefu had an easy time against Oklahoma, but he’ll face a much tougher challenge tonight. While the Tar Heels give significant minutes to a stable of talented big men (Johnson, Meeks and Hicks), Villanova lacks depth in the frontcourt. The Wildcats can go to Darryl Reynolds, a 6’8’’ junior, off the bench, but he had no points and two rebounds in 11 minutes against the Sooners. The Wildcats’ best hope is to end defensive possessions by corralling North Carolina’s missed shots, and Ochefu will be critical in this regard. The problem is that Villanova hasn’t been particularly good at preventing second chances; it ranks 134th in the country in opponent offensive rebounding percentage. Nor does it do a good job protecting the basket, checking in 139th nationally in block percentage. The Tar Heels have dominated opponents all season long by exploiting those same flaws. Forget about the possibility of wayward shooting in a cavernous dome: If Villanova can’t provide resistance close to the basket, it probably won’t make a difference whether North Carolina shoots well from the perimeter.
Edge: North Carolina