Editor's Early Preview (9/15):
It would be too much to ask surprising Evansville to knock off uber-power UNC. But a good showing by the Aces would go a long way in helping the MVC salvage some respect that is otherwise lacking in 08-09. The Heels are bound to lose at some point this season (right?), but this isn't the time.
Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
Tonight’s preview focuses on a game that’s getting a lot of attention, not because of the matchup on the court, but rather Tyler Hansborough’s chase for the #3 North Carolina (9-0) all-time scoring record, as the Tar Heels host #73 Evansville (7-1).
First, a quick note on the most attention grabbing part of that intro sentence, #3 North Carolina. This is a quirk of the ELO rating system, rather than my own opinion, which is that the Tar Heels are the nation’s best team. The problem for UNC is that they have only played eight D-1 opponents, leaving them at a disadvantage against teams that have played ten and sit ahead of them. Once the number of games get into the mid-teens, these kinds of problems become much smaller in magnitude.
The appearance of Evansville in Chapel Hill echoes a familiar theme I noticed with North Carolina last season. Namely, a mid-major team off to a good start, with no big wins and a gaudy looking record, traveling to face UNC. UC Santa Barbara, Valparaiso and Kent St. all fit this model from last season, as does Evansville this year. The Aces’ only loss came at Butler, which doesn’t look bad given the Bulldogs’ start, and they enter this game fresh off a 30-point beat-down of Western Kentucky. However, the precedent set in the previous UNC games I mentioned is rather frightening for Evansville, as the Tar Heels won those three games last season by an average of 32 points. For their part, North Carolina’s performances have been well documented, as they destroyed Kentucky, easily won the Maui title, and ran Michigan St. into the ground in Detroit.
What makes the Tar Heels so spectacular is their offense, as they combine the ability to turn possessions into points, through avoiding turnovers and making shots from both inside and outside, with some of the fastest play in the nation, not only generating a lot of points, but wasting very few chances. They also do well on the offensive glass and at the free throw line, but they aren’t exceptional in those areas. Evansville has had a strong defensive showing this season, but this is an entirely different beast they’re facing. The Aces defend the interior well, but don’t have a large shot-blocking presence, and they aren’t particularly good at defending the outside. They are good defensive rebounders, but find themselves at a serious size and athleticsim disadvantage.
Defensively, North Carolina has made a big step up from last season, as so far it has defended the paint resiliently, doing well on the glass and in blocking shots, while at the same time producing a good number of turnovers and keeping opponents away from the free throw line. If they have a weakness, it is the three-point shot, as the high pace tends to give opponents a fair number of good looks. In terms of the matchup, there is both good and bad news for the Tar Heels, as Evansville shoots very few threes, but does pretty well on the ones they do take. Frankly, I can’t see a team that takes more than 80% of it’s shots from two making much headway against the North Carolina defense. If Evansville has any hope, it will be from behind the arc and at the line, as the Aces are very effective at getting to the line, and make most of their shots when they get there.
Of course, the talk, and rightfully so, is about Tyler Hansborough, and his attempt to pass Phil Ford’s all-time UNC scoring record. Barring an early injury, this is basically a certainty, as the last game in which Hansborough failed to reach the nine points he needs to break the record was in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament against USC. In fact, in his career Hansborough has been held under 9 points only four times, so we should be pretty safe in anticipating a ceremony partway through this game. The reason Hansborough is so good is simple. He takes a lot of shots, and even though his percentages aren’t the best, he also manages to avoid turnovers while at the same time getting to the line and being an outstanding FT shooter. He’s a strong rebounder, not in the class of a Blake Griffin, but better than most, and he doesn’t need to be great there, since he does so well with the ball anyway. However, to focus so strongly on Hansborough, even on his big night, is unfair to the other strong performers. Deon Thompson leads the team in shot attempts and has made over 61% of them, while averaging 8 boards a game. Ty Lawson is another excellent shooter, 54% from three this season, and also leads the ACC in assists and steals, while posting an eye-popping 5.6 A/TO ratio. Wayne Ellington is the weakest shooter of the starters, but that’s not really an insult with this team, and he has committed only 8 turnovers in 9 games. Danny Green, like Lawson, has been a first-rate shooter, right on 50% from three. It’s likely we’ll see a lot of the UNC bench as well, with the most notable player probably 6-10 Ed Davis, another efficient inside scorer who leads the team in rebounds and blocks, despite not starting.
Evansville has its own trio of big guys, though ‘big’ is relative as all three are forwards shorter than 6-8. Shy Ely is the team’s leading scorer, and also averages nearly 6 rebounds a game, while Nate Garner is a nearly 60% shooter who leads the team in rebounding. The third member of the trio is freshman James Haarsma, who has come off the bench to average 5.5 boards and 9 points in less than 18 minutes a game. These are solid, effective players, but they can’t hold a candle to the Heels inside. Another big man starts for the Aces in Pieter van Tongeren, but the 6-11 sophomore generally plays less than 20 minutes, and hasn’t been as good as Haarsma. The Evansville guards haven’t been great, as they have only one true shooter in Jason Holsinger, who also does the duty of running the offense. Kaylon Williams is Holsinger’s freshman backcourt partner, an unimpressive shooter who gets to the line a lot and also has shown some talent in a point guard role. Depth looks like a serious problem for the Aces, as only Kavon Lacey, another guard who scores mostly inside, plays significant minutes off the bench.
I like the Aces, and I hope they do well in the conference season, but I’m afraid tonight they will be reduced to a mere prop in Hansborough’s big moment. If they are lucky, they may be able to close the gap late as Notre Dame and Oral Roberts did, but this will surely be a night for Tar Heel fans.
Winner: North Carolina Margin: +20
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.