Saturday April 4th, 2009

North Carolina enters the Final Four with the nation's most efficient offense at just under 1.24 points per possession (adjusted for schedule strength). If the Tar Heels win the title, they will be the fifth straight national champ that finished the season in the top two in that category. Carolina's efficiency is made more remarkable by its average adjusted tempo of 73.8 possessions a game, which ranked eighth in Division I.

While Carolina is a very good shooting team, its offense is helped even more by excellent offensive rebounding (39.5 percent rate; 16th in Division I) and a lack of turnovers (16.7 percent of possessions; 14th in D-I). Put simply, the Heels don't waste very many of them. They take good shots and those they don't make, they often rebound. Combine that with a penchant for fast-break buckets, and you have the most devastating offense in the country.

The Heels' defense, ranked 18th in adjusted efficiency, is better than given credit for, but it can be indifferent at times. Down the stretch of the high-octane ACC season, Carolina allowed at least 1.07 PPP in eight of its last 12 games, which isn't good at all. Generally speaking, they don't give you many freebies (fifth lowest rate of free throws attempted per field goal attempt), but they can be had on occasion from the arc (see below).

Villanova doesn't do anything particularly great, but it does almost everything pretty well. The Wildcats don't fit the statistical profile of recent national champs, sitting outside the nation's top 50 in all three of the biggest leading indicators: offensive rebounding rate, two-point field goal shooting and two-point field goal defense. That said, they're in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, rebound well above average at both ends and, perhaps most importantly, possess the type of personal and statistical profile that has troubled the Heels this season.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this matchup is possible shot preference. North Carolina has three excellent three-point shooters but relies much more heavily on inside scoring and transition baskets. Meanwhile, Villanova's opponents took a higher percentage of shots from the arc than all but four teams in D-I. Whether 'Nova can lure UNC into a jump-shooting contest and whether Carolina falls for the fool's gold if it hits some early shots will be a really interesting subplot. If that game unfolds in a half-court setting, Villanova likely would be pleased.

According to kenpom.com's ratings (which is different from RPI), Carolina only played seven top-25 opponents this season, but went 6-1 in those games and, in looking at median performance, maintained a huge 0.205 efficiency margin. Basically, for every five possessions against elite teams, UNC scored one additional point.

Perhaps telling, though, the team in that group most similar to Villanova in style and composition (Duke) posted the two best PPP rates. Also, against the only ACC team with a defense statistically better than Villanova's (Florida State), Carolina needed a buzzer-beating heave to win in Tallahassee and lost (notably without Ty Lawson) in the ACC tournament.

Thanks in large part to the depth and quality of the Big East, Villanova has played 14 top-25 opponents this season, and after losing the first four games in that subgroup, have won eight of their last 10, including two wins over Pitt (the nation's second-best offensive efficiency team with its own horse inside in DeJuan Blair). One thing to watch: Nova has played more quickly in games against elite opponents this season. That won't work well on Saturday unless Nova absolutely shoots the lights out from behind the arc.

Three of Carolina's four losses this season actually came against non-elite teams and the most common theme in those losses was the Tar Heels getting hurt badly from three-point range. Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland and Florida State combined to shoot 36 for 88 (40.9 percent) in the upsets. Much of the damage also was caused by standout guards. Jeff Teague (34 points) and Greivis Vasquez (35 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) had huge games. Villanova has the quality of guards to replicate that kind of issue for the Tar Heels.

In six of Villanova's seven losses this season, the offense was the culprit. In four of those (Texas, Georgetown and Louisville twice), the Wildcats were held below 0.85 PPP. That's good news, because Nova should be able to score on Carolina. Whether the Cats can stop the Heels is a much bigger question. Only about half a dozen opponents have put up big offensive nights against Nova, but Carolina is the best and most diverse offensive team Nova will have faced this season.

If things break the wrong way, this could be the blowout of the semifinal round, with Carolina moving on to Monday's title game. There are a number of reasons, though, to believe Villanova can keep this close. The Cats certainly have the guard play and the slashing game to trouble the Heels, and they also have a fairly unique primary scorer inside in Dante Cunningham who could cause fits for Tyler Hansbrough and Co.

Offensively, Villanova improves upon Duke's dribble-drive leanings with superior guards and much more interior firepower, and the Blue Devils had large periods of offensive success against the Heels this season. Defensively, Nova is most comparable to Florida State, which did as good a job as anyone in the ACC this season in holding down the Heels' high-octane attack.

If you take components of UNC's last two NCAA tournament losses, you have a composite picture of what should worry Carolina fans. Down the stretch in the 2007 Elite Eight against Georgetown, Carolina got suckered into a jump-shooting contest and fired its way out of the tourney. Last season against Kansas, defensive limitations hinted at all season manifested themselves at a terrible time.

Carolina has had an above-average NCAA tournament defensively. Is Saturday the day the Heels regress to the mean? Villanova is talented enough and rugged enough defensively not to get run out of the building, and if the Cats can maintain some control over the style of the game, it could be there for the taking down the stretch. If it is, Nova shoots free throws as well as anyone (ask Pitt).

In the end, if Carolina stays with its m.o., establishes Hansbrough and Co. inside and takes the three only as a result of good inside-out or transition offense, the Heels should have enough to win.

Prediction: North Carolina 79, Villanova 71

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