After a long regular season, Wisconsin is right where we thought it would be when we lined everything up in November. The Badgers have won a pair of Big Ten championships and now stand poised to advance to their second straight Final Four with two more wins this week. However, in their way stand North Carolina, one of the toughest teams that Wisconsin will have to face this year.
Although the Tar Heels dropped three games before ACC play even began, we can still call their non-conference schedule a success because of how many challenging opponents they ran into. Even with disappointing losses to Butler and Iowa as well as a drubbing at the hands of Kentucky, there was plenty for the Chapel Hill faithful to cheer about. Victories over NCAA Tournament qualifiers like Davidson, UCLA, and Ohio State were great resume-boosters and prepared North Carolina for a tough ACC slate, while a neutral-site win over Florida was nothing to scoff at either.
That led to a 7-1 start to conference play that included big wins over Louisville, North Carolina State, and Syracuse. However, the grueling schedule finally took its toll when the Heels dropped five of their next seven. It's hard to be too tough on North Carolina, though, when that stretch contains a loss to a red-hot Virginia team and overtime defeats at the hands of Louisville and Duke. After bolstering their conference record with a sweep of Georgia Tech and a solid road win over Miami, the Tar Heels fell to Duke again and finished 11-7 in the ACC.
Playing down the road from Chapel Hill in Greensboro, North Carolina certainly paid dividends for the Heels in the ACC Tournament. They triumphed over Louisville for a second time and conquered Virginia on their way to a surprising title game appearance versus Notre Dame. There, North Carolina was overwhelmed by the Irish shooting onslaught, but still came away with a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After a too-close-for-comfort victory over Harvard and an impressive offensive display versus Arkansas, the Heels are in the Sweet 16 to battle Wisconsin. Ranked 12th by Kenpom in offensive efficiency, North Carolina represents one of the stiffest challenges for the Badgers in 2015. The only Big Ten teams to feature that kind of firepower are Indiana, a team whose defense leaves much to be desired, and Michigan State, who Wisconsin just barely outlasted in overtime earlier this month. No matter how you slice it, North Carolina vs. Wisconsin promises to be an exciting matchup.
It's hard to find a team with the combination of size and scoring ability that North Carolina boasts. The Badgers themselves might be the only squad that can match up to the Heels in both categories. While Carolina's forwards are a sight to behold, the offense starts with Marcus Paige, who is a lethal scorer even though he didn't put up the type of numbers that some pundits expected this winter. Not only does Paige act as a point guard with 4.5 assists per contest, but he also scores 14.1 points per game thanks to his 39-percent shooting from beyond the arc and excellent ball handling skills.
When Paige's shots aren't falling there are still plenty of options inside for the Heels. Junior Brice Johnson and sophomore Kennedy Meeks both average in the double figures for points and are two of the best rebounding big men in the nation. Most teams would consider themselves lucky to have just one forward who can put the ball in the basket as well as these two can.
In fact, North Carolina might only have Johnson available for Thursday's tilt because Meeks suffered a knee injury against Arkansas over the weekend. His status for the Wisconsin game is unknown. Even if he is healthy enough to play, there will still be a bigger role available for either J.P. Tokoto, the athletic point forward who does a little bit of everything, and Justin Jackson, the surprisingly polished freshman big man who can stretch out defenses.
Whether or not Meeks is held out, North Carolina still has plenty of ways to attack the Wisconsin defense. With few perimeter threats for the Badgers to deal with, this game could come to which team rebounds better. The Heels grab 40 percent of their own misses, and Wisconsin must cut that number down in order to avoid the upset. On the other end of the floor, North Carolina has the size and length to defend Wisconsin's multiple threats, but the Heels will probably still have to double Frank Kaminsky if they want to stay out of foul trouble. That could be an even more important issue if Meets doesn't play.