Note: This post is from 2009. To view our 2010 March Madness coverage, use the following links:
- March Madness 2010 Schedule, Sites, and Tickets
- MSF Bracket Challenge
- Mens NCAA Tournament Bracket, TV Schedule, Announcers, Spreads
- Midwest Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- East Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- South Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- West Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- History of Final Four in Indianapolis
- Women’s NCAA Tournament Schedule, Sites, Tickets
This post will analyze the Villanova-North Carolina Final Four game using a statistical analysis provided by the Game Predictor at ESPN.com, which is powered by TeamRankings.com. For an analysis of how this program works, hop over to the first individual game Sweet 16 preview I put out for UConn-Purdue. The methodology is all explained there.
In my original bracket I picked the Wildcats to lose in the Elite 8 to Pittsburgh (although I correctly reversed that in my preview last week) and picked North Carolina to make it to the title game before falling to UConn. Yet, while North Carolina is certainly fun to watch and I greatly respect their overall talents and abilities, there is just something special about how this emerging Villanova team is playing during the tournament.
They took UCLA behind the woodshed in round two and announced themselves as a tournament force to be reckoned with. Then, in the Sweet 16, they did college basketball fans everywhere a favor by kicking the snot out of Duke. And last week, Villanova and Pittsburgh treated us to the best game of the tournament, with Nova’s Scottie Reynolds providing the tournament’s most enduring moment thus far: his game-winner in the final seconds that propelled Villanova to Detroit and sent Pittsburgh home.
North Carolina has operated its way through the 2009 NCAA Tournament with surgical precision. After a close 25 or so minutes, they pulled away from LSU in Ty Lawson’s triumphant return from the toe injury that had led many people to question North Carolina coming into the tournament. Then they destroyed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and laid the hammer down on Oklahoma in the Elite 8.
Now these two teams, with their combined tournament margin of victory of 18.5 points, meet to decide who plays the winner of Michigan State-UConn for the NCAA title. A lot of people are expecting an easy North Carolina victory, and the Tar Heels are favored by 7.5; but Villanova has taught us during this postseason run that you underestimate the boys from Philly at your own risk.
Unfortunately for Villanova, North Carolina underestimated their Final Four opponent last year and got smoked in the process. With almost the exact same team back again this year, I do not think the Tar Heels will be taking anyone lightly.
Let’s take a quick look at the particulars for the Nova-UNC game on Saturday night and then proceed with the analysis and prediction.
Villanova-North Carolina Final Four Preview and Prediction
- Tickets: 2009 Final Four Tickets from StubHub
- Final Four Quick Preview
- Final Four Date: Saturday, April 4th
- TV: CBS (or March Madness On Demand)
- Villanova-UNC Game Time: 8:47 PM ET
- Location: Ford Field in Detroit, MI
- Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg
- Spread: North Carolina -7.5
- Over-Under: 159
- ESPN Team Pages: Villanova | North Carolina
(FYI…the above spread and over-under are from BetUs on 3/31 at 7:30 am, so you may want to check there for the most up-to-date info if you see this later in the week. And I realize that this number is probably different from what Game Predictor shows below. I don’t know where ESPN gets that spread info.)
Now, as we always do in this spot, let’s take a look at the matchup between these two teams based on their season averages in the five statistical categories we have used to analyze every game thus far since the Sweet 16:
- Offensive Efficiency: North Carolina – 1.155 | Villanova – 1.076
- Defensive Efficiency: North Carolina – 0.932 | Villanova – 0.935
- Assist/TO Ratio: North Carolina – 1.416 | Villanova – 1.120
- Free Throw %: North Carolina – 0.765 | Villanova – 0.753
- Defensive Field Goal %: North Carolina – 0.414 | Villanova – 0.403
North Carolina’s numbers are pretty impressive aren’t they? One thing is for sure: this is the best matchup since the Sweet 16 in terms of free throw shooting.
Well we know from experience that Game Predictor will spit out North Carolina as a heavy favorite. The question is by how much. Let’s look:
- Odds to Win Game: North Carolina – 74.9% | Villanova – 25.1%
- Most Likely Final Score: North Carolina – 74.3 | Villanova – 67.7
- Odds to Cover Spread (Nova +7): North Carolina – 57.8% | Villanova – 42.2%
- Confidence Level: 4 Stars
So Game Predictor basically believes that if North Carolina and Villanova took the court to play their Final Four matchup ten times, that North Carolina would win seven or eight of them. And I do not disagree with that at all. However, as we know, they only play once. And there are two important reasons why Villanova absolutely has hope heading into Saturday:
- April 5, 2008
The first reason, of course, refers to the legendary upset victory by Villanova over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Championship game. The Wildcats were seeded 8th and somehow found a way to overcome Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas. The second reason refers to last year’s Final Four, when North Carolina was absolutely demolished by Kansas 84-66. That North Carolina team was led by Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, and Wayne Ellington. This year’s North Carolina team is led by Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, and Wayne Ellington. If they are capable of throwing up that kind of egg in the Final Four once, does it not stand to reason that they are capable of doing it again?
And does Roy Williams really — I mean really — have your complete trust in the NCAA Tournament? How many times has this guy fallen below expectations in March? I understand that the expectations and the bar he set at Kansas and North Carolina have been ridiculously high, and Roy Williams has certainly compiled an impressive record and list of accomplishments, including Final Fours and Elite 8s and even one title. But If this North Carolina team, favored by most to win the title, falls just short of that goal, they will only be carrying on the postseason legacy of Roy Williams: close, but rarely (just once) a cigar.
Starting to feel good Villanova fans!?!
Well, calm down. The odds of winning are still not even close to being stacked in your favor.
But let’s look a little deeper and see if we can’t find some reasons why Villanova will win this game. Carolina is the prohibitive favorite, but nothing is guaranteed in sports, which is what makes them so great. So as we did with Michigan State-UConn, let’s look at three reasons why Villanova will win and then three reasons why they will not.
Three Reasons Why Villanova Can Beat North Carolina
1 — All you have to do is stop Ty Lawson
Take a look at the four losses North Carolina suffered this year and you begin to understand why so many people in Chapel Hill were worried about Ty Lawson’s toe heading into the tournament.
In North Carolina’s ACC Tournament loss to Florida State, Lawson did not play. Bobby Frasor did a wonderful job of filling in by going 0-1 from the field, scoring 2 points, grabbing 2 rebounds, and dishing out 1 assist…in 33 minutes, which surprisingly was not enough.
In North Carolina’s three regular season losses, all ACC contests to Boston College, Wake Forest, and Maryland, Lawson was not his usual all-around great self. In UNC’s loss to Maryland, Lawson did score 24 points, but had only two assists against four turnovers in 41 minutes of play. Against Wake Forest, a 92-89 loss for the Tar Heels, Lawson played 34 minutes and only scored 9 points on 4-12 from the field with 5 assists and 4 turnovers. And in North Carolina’s 85-78 loss to Boston College, Ty Lawson scored 10 points on 3-13 shooting with 4 assists and 4 turnovers.
The key to beating North Carolina is pretty simple: shut down Ty Lawson; and Villanova has very good guards, with experience playing against very good guards in the Big East. (More on this to come later.)
2 — Villanova has momentum and confidence
Villanova has beaten two good teams (UCLA and Duke) into submission and then pulled out a gritty, exciting win in the final seconds over one of the four or five best teams in the last country last weekend. Plus, Villanova has the Big East arrogance that they are well within their right to have, knowing that they duked it out in one of the best conferences ever this season. The Wildcats will not be intimidated by the mystique and 2009 reputation of mighty North Carolina.
To contrast, look at North Carolina’s last two opponents.
Sure, Oklahoma played a great game against Syracuse in the Elite 8, but that was just a week after they endured a knock-down, drag-out fight against a Michigan team that — I’m sorry Wolverine fans — just is not that good. And this came on the heels of a poor performance in the Big 12 Tournament and over the last few weeks of the season as the Sooners struggled to return to form after Blake Griffin’s injury. Plus, the Sooners relied a freshman guard in Willie Warren to help shoulder the scoring load, and he just was not up to the task.
In the Sweet 16, North Carolina took on a Gonzaga team that had been taken to the final seconds by Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are a good team, but by no means great. It had to be in the back of the Zags’ collective mind that they were within a hair of losing to Western Kentucky; how in the hell could they compete with one of the most talented teams in America?
Villanova will have no such self-doubt and will not be intimidated. And say what you will, but North Carolina dominated Oklahoma and Gonzaga as much mentally as they did physically and from an execution standpoint.
Villanova has an experienced backcourt led by a guy in Scottie Reynolds who is proving himself to be a player who comes through in big March moments. He is that one guy that every championship team needs who will come through in big situations, regardless of how well he is playing that night. Case in point: the Pitt game. Reynolds was 4-11 from the field and 0-3 from downtown. He had 1 assist and 4 turnovers. Yet he came through with the game-winning play.
Plus, Villanova is one of the few schools in America that can legitimately lay claim to a pedigree that includes one of the five or ten biggest upsets in the history of sports. The underdog role suits this school just fine. I think that matters. A lot.
Combine all of these individual components and Villanova can look North Carolina in the eye and not blink, and that is huge.
3 — If you are going to beat North Carolina, you better have a guy who can deliver an incredible individual performance.
Look at the evidence:
- 85-78 loss to Boston College: Tyrese Rice scores 25 points, grabs 8 boards, and dishes on 5 assists (and gets 22 points and 6 rebounds worth of help, plus 4-7 3-point shooting, from Rakim Sanders).
- 92-89 loss to Wake Forest: Jeff Teague scores 34 points on 9-17 shooting (3-4 from downtown) while grabbing 6 boards and dishing 4 assists.
- 88-85 loss to Maryland: Greivis Vasquez is sensational, scoring 35 points in 44 minutes of play on 13-24 shooting (5-10 from downtown). He also has 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
- 73-70 loss to Florida State: Toney Douglas scores 27 points on 10-18 shooting, plus 4 assists and 4 boards.
The purported Achilles’ Heel for North Carolina all season long has been their defense. They are prone to lapses every now and then, and on those nights individual players who are ready to step up can lead their team to victory. Does Villanova have a player capable of such a transcendent individual performance on a big stage?
We already mentioned him: Scottie Reynolds.
Reynolds popped for 40 points once already this season, in a road victory over Seton Hall. He scored 31 in a road win over Providence. He scored 27 in a dominating win for Villanova over a good Marquette team.
And if Reynolds is not completely on his game, or if Villanova needs two outstanding performances like Boston College had against UNC, the Wildcats have Dante Cunningham. Cunningham scored 31 points in a win over Syracuse this year and has numerous big games in big spots like his double-doubles against UCLA and Duke in the tournament.
Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham are good enough to carry Villanova for a night and lead a victory, even over a team as good as North Carolina.
Three Reasons Why Villanova Cannot Beat North Carolina
1 — Both Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham, as good as they are, have blemishes on their big game resume this year
As good as Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham have proven themselves to be in some big spots this year, they have also played poorly in some of Villanova’s losses to good teams.
Cunningham had just 7 points and 6 rebounds in a 93-72 loss to West Virgnia earlier this year. He also was held to just 6 points and 3 rebounds in 14 minutes of play before fouling out against UConn. Granted, North Carolina does not have anyone like Hasheem Thabeet, but this is still a red flag.
For Reynolds’ part, he also also proven that he can shrink against good teams in big spots. In the Big East Tournament loss to Louisville, Reynolds scored 2 points on 1-6 shooting. In a loss to Texas early in the year he had 10 points on 2-7 shooting. And as well as he played in the clutch moments last weekend, Reynolds has not made more than 5 shots, or shot better than 50% from the field, in any NCAA Tournament game this year.
So while Reynolds and Cunningham are very good, sometimes great players, and are good more often than they are not, there is no margin for error on the part of either Saturday night. Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham need to be Oustanding (yes, with a capital “O”) on for Villanova to have a chance against North Carolina. They have proven to be capable of such performances in big spots, but have also shown the capability to shrink in big moments as well.
Which Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham will show up? The answer to that question will determine whether or not Villanova can compete.
2 — Shutting down Ty Lawson is no easy task
Yet another paradoxical dichotomy in this list of reasons. While it is true that the Tar Heels become a much more beatable team if Ty Lawson is having an off night, he very rarely has them. Look at Lawson’s game log for this season. He had terrible numbers against Georgia Tech and the Tar Heels still won by 30, but for the most part, Lawson has been very consistent outside of the four losses cited above.
And have you seen him play in the tournament? Is there anything that leads you to believe he won’t have a great game on Saturday?
In three tournament games, Lawson is 20-35 from the field, 14-16 from the line, and 7-11 from downtown. He has scored 23, 19, and 19 points in the three games he has played and has dished out 20 assists against 2 turnovers. And the final rankings of the last three Carolina opponents have been #20, #10, and #8. So he is doing this against solid competition, regardless of how intimidated they may have looked.
Simply put, Ty Lawson has been the best and most important player in the NCAA Tournament thus far.
Villanova has shown the ability to shut down good point guards. Just last weekend they held Levance Fields to only 10 points on 2-8 shooting, although he did have a 6/0 assist/turnover line. Against Syracuse earlier this year, they held Jonny Flynn to 5-17 shooting and only 12 points. Conversely, in a loss to UConn, AJ Price scored 29 points on 10-13 shooting and had 5 assists.
It is hard to predict Ty Lawson doing anything but having a stellar night. Villanova is capable of frustrating him and forcing Lawson to struggle, but it’s more of an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it type proposition as far as I’m concerned. Ty Lawson has earned that trust with his play this season.
3 — There is a reason Villanova was a #3 seed: inconsistency
When Villanova is on their game, the Wildcats can obviously play with anybody in the country. However, they are also prone to having that game every now and then where they inexplicably play poorly and struggle.
For instance, after knocking off then-#20 Syracuse and then-#12 Marquette in back-to-back games in February, ‘Nova lost 93-72 to West Virginia. Furthermore, to begin December after a 12-1 start to the year, Villanova dropped 3 out of 5 games, losing to top-25 teams Marquette, Louisville, and UConn during the stretch while beating only Seton Hall and St. John’s. And after a thrilling win over Marquette in the Big East Tournament, the Wildcats were shellacked 69-55 by a Louisville team that was on an absolute roll.
I hate to say it, but I see some parallels between what happened in the Big East Tournament and what could happen on Saturday night.
The last four games of the season for Villanova:
- 77-60 dominant win at Notre Dame
- 97-80 dominant win over Providence
- 76-75 tough, hard-fought win over a very good Marquette team
- 69-55 loss to a streaking Louisville squad
The last four games of the tournament for Villanova:
- 89-69 dominant win over UCLA
- 77-54 dominant win over Duke
- 78-76 tough, hard-fought win over a very good Pitt team
- ??-?? ???? to a streaking North Carolina squad
Substitute the ?’s with the same result from the Louisville game and you being to understand my trepidation. And while I realize that UCLA and Duke are much better than Notre Dame and Providence, the fact remains that this is a troubling pattern for Villanova that I cannot get past when analyzing this game — no matter how much I want to pick the Wildcats.
So it should come as no surprise to you that I begrudgingly pick North Carolina to not just win the game Saturday night, but to cover the spread. And it should also come as no surprise that, just as I said after picking UConn to beat Michigan State, I hope I am wrong.
In both games Saturday night I will be cheering against my own picks. I want the underdogs Michigan State and Villanova to win, and I correctly picked them both to triumph as underdogs in the Elite 8. I just do not see in the stats, season history, or matchups, legitimate reasons to believe that they will be able to capture the magic for one more weekend.
Please Villanova fans, as I implored the Spartans fans to do, use the comment section to tell me why I am wrong and to give me hope heading into Saturday. I will be firmly in your corner, cheering loudly and hoping for a ‘Nova upset over the Tar Heels — I will just be very, very surprised if that hope turns into reality.
Of course, there was even less belief in 1985 and we all know how that turned out…
What do you think?