- Ky McKeon
(1) North Carolina vs. (3) Oregon
LUKE MAYE ladies and gentlemen! The 6’8” sophomore arrived in Chapel Hill as a walk-on but has blossomed into a gorgeous x-factor and Elite Eight MVP. UNC edged out Kentucky in a tight contest that featured the Heels ahead for most of the entire game. Poor shot selection and carelessness almost cost them the victory, but as my older brother’s friend told me after he beat me by one point in NBA Live ’98, “Ky Ky, whether you win by one or win by a hundred, a win’s a win”. So true. UNC now finds themselves in their second straight Final Four and as the odds-on favorite to take home the hardware. Just two more obstacles stand in their way.
One of those obstacles is the Oregon Ducks, a team that has miraculously amassed in impressive Tournament win streak despite the absence of Chris Boucher, their lithe shot-blocking extraordinaire. The Ducks barely survived a battle with Rhode Island, a game in which they really should have lost, and then used Tyler Dorsey’s magical shot-making ability to defeat the seemingly untouchable Michigan Wolverines. Jordan Bell then opened the gates of Hell on an unprepared Kansas team, blocking 8 shots, grabbing 13 boards, and scoring 11 points in a near Iron Man triple-double performance. Oregon is playing their best ball of the season right now and have a coach in Dana Altman up to the challenge of the juggernaut that is UNC.
The Tar Heel big men are going to be the key in this game. Roy Williams can throw any combination of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and the recently-christened “Hero of Chapel Hill” Luke Maye at the Duck frontline, each duo causing a unique defensive challenge for Dana Altman’s crew. Oregon’s frontline is really only limited to Jordan Bell, who is absolutely excellent in every sense of the word – but he’s just one man. Despite the injury to Chris Boucher, Altman has kept his 6-man rotation intact for the most part, giving backup big man Kavell Bigby-Williams only a taste of gameplay in each Tourney tilt thus far (8 minutes vs. Kansas, 13 minutes against the bigger Rhode Island Rams).
With this big lineup, UNC is going to look to score via post-ups and via the offensive glass. The former will be a tall task against the stout defensive presence of Bell, who is giving up only 0.692ppp off post-ups this season, a top tier mark in the country (per Synergy). The latter should be an area of fruitfulness. The Heels continue their strangle-hold on the #1 spot in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing a ridiculous 41.9% of their misses this season (per KenPom):
The Ducks rank 180th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, not bad, but certainly not ideal. Outside of Bell, defensive rebounding is a foreign concept to the Ducks’ roster; statistically, Dylan Ennis is their second best defensive rebounder amongst players who play over ¼ of the game, and even he boasts only a 12.7% defensive rebounding percentage clip.
When not scoring inside or off the glass, UNC is looking to tally up points on the run. The Heels play at the 50th fastest overall tempo in the country (per KenPom), and attempt the 25th highest rate of initial field goals in transition (per Hoop-Math). Joel Berry and Justin Jackson are the best open-floor creators on the Heel roster, and they can pick apart just about any defense on the run. However, the Ducks are actually well equipped to defend such an attack. Oregon ranks 46th in the country in allowing initial field goal attempts in transition, and ranks 28th in effective field goal percentage defense in transition (both numbers per Hoop-Math). Oregon really only sends one man to the glass on offense (Bell), while the rest retreat back to set up the defense in order to quell a transition opportunity before it starts. UNC won’t have near the success in this department against Oregon as they did against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Individual matchup-wise, the scale tips heavily in favor of UNC when they have the ball in their hands. Jackson should have a field day against the Ducks if Oregon chooses to set up in man-to-man. Due to Altman’s preferred lineup structure, Dillon Brooks will likely be forced to guard one of the big men on the block, setting Jackson up with a matchup against Tyler Dorsey. Brooks isn’t a great defender by any means, but at least he has the size to match up with Jackson. Statistically, Dorsey is one of Oregon’s best perimeter defenders, but he’ll be giving up four inches to a guy that doesn’t need a whole lot of space to get a shot off in the first place. Jackson should be able to pick his spots and find high-percentage shot opportunities against the smaller Dorsey.
Berry, UNC’s other important perimeter playmaker, will likely draw Payton Pritchard or Dylan Ennis. My guess is Pritchard due to Ennis’s brawn being needed to guard the bigger Theo Pinson. Pritchard is actually a good isolation and on-ball defender, but he’s only average in the pick-n-roll, an area where Berry should be able to exploit him.
Now, these matchup advantages only favor UNC in a man setting. The bad news for the Heels is the Ducks play a ton of zone, and will likely be in some sort of non-man look the entire game. The Ducks played zone over half the game against Kansas, and set up in that style of defense at a top-50 rate in the country – they also are a top 50 team in points allowed per possession while playing zone (both per Synergy). Altman’s zone defenses are tricky because he throws several different types at opponents during the game – the Ducks usually play a 1-2-2 trapping zone or a 2-3 matchup zone. I think the latter is what we will see more from Oregon in this game. The 1-2-2 trapping zone works better against teams who are turnover prone that can’t burn you in the interior, while the 2-3 will allow Oregon to protect the paint while forcing UNC to settle for unwanted three-point attempts (only Jackson and Berry shot over 80 three-pointers for the Heels this year).
It may come as no surprise to learn that UNC has faced quite a bit of zone this season. The natural thought would be that UNC would struggle to score against a zone given their team makeup and offensive tendencies, however the Heels actually have performed better against zones this season, scoring 0.977ppp versus 0.933ppp against man-to-man defenses (per Synergy):
Though the Heels haven’t shot it at an elite level from outside this season, they rank 25th in field goal percentage against zones this year (Synergy), and shot well against Butler in the Sweet 16, going 9/24 from deep. We’ve seen UNC struggle from the outside as well this season, like when they shot 5/22 from deep against a mostly-zone Duke defense in the ACC Tournament. However, the Heels grabbed 22 offensive rebounds in that contest, proving that there is more than one way to skin a zone. Big Dance Revelation and Goosebumps dummy look-alike Luke Maye could play the role of zone-buster at the high post with his smooth stroke.
One final note on UNC’s offense – they need to play less Nate Britt. He simply hasn’t been good this year and can’t be trusted with the ball:
If Berry goes down with those glass ankles, UNC fans should pray Stilman White isn’t too old to run up and down the floor, because Britt is not the guy you want leading your team in a Final Four match (he posted a ZERO offensive rating against Kentucky).
The Ducks play at a significantly slower pace than UNC, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get out and run with the best of teams. Oregon actually runs quite a bit off opponent misses, and ranks 8th in the country effective field goal percentage in transition. Off opponent scores, however, the Ducks prefer to slow the pace down and take their time in the half-court. The ducks are comfortable working the ball around to find the best possible shot; Oregon ranks 27th in percentage of shot attempts at the rim and 330th in percentage of shot attempts from the mid-range area (both numbers per Hoop-Math). This implies how strong Oregon’s offensive efficiency is – they do not settle for less than optimal shots.
In the half-court, it’s all about shooting for Oregon. Altman’s squad runs a four-out, one-in spread offense, with Bell anchoring the middle in the center of a quartet of guards. The name of their game is drive-and-kick – guards love to drive hard to the middle of the floor, baiting help defenders to collapse, leaving wing shooters open for good perimeter looks. Ennis particularly excels at the drive-and-kick action; he can take the ball all the way to the basket, or kick it out to a perimeter that features a combination of Brooks (41.3% from 3), Pritchard (35.8%), Dorsey (42.3%), and Casey Benson (41.3%). This drive-and-kick action can also set up back-door opportunities when defenders overplay the kick:
The Ducks move the ball so well within this motion offense, ranking 75th in assisted field goals made this season. The offense usually involves some sort of soft ball-screen action to initiate the play, along with bump screens by fading wings and cutters. Oregon’s offense is gorgeous when it’s fully engaged:
Offensive rebounding is also a large part of Oregon’s success on offense, but the Ducks don’t rely on it the same way UNC does. Where the Heels depend on the glass for easy put-back opportunities, Oregon uses the glass as a second-chance to milk the clock and create more offense. Bell is especially good at earning the Ducks extra possessions, he ranked 5th in the Pac-12 this season in offensive rebounding percentage (per KenPom):
Sometimes the Duck offense can stagnate, but they have the shooters to bail them out of these situations. Brooks and Dorsey are both able to create their shot, and are liable to catch the ball, stare their defender down, and jack up a shot at any time:
Like UNC, Oregon will have a couple matchups they will be able to exploit on the offensive end. The Heels aren’t going to be able to easily matchup with Dillon Brooks. Because Altman uses Brooks as a small-ball four, Hicks is going to be forced to step out against him, exposing himself to easy blow-by opportunities. If Williams counters with a small-ball lineup, Brooks has the strength to take Jackson or a similar defender into the post. Where Kansas was able to switch everything on the perimeter against the Ducks in the Elite Eight, UNC is going to have at least one exposed position at all times.
The Tar Heels are a good perimeter defensive team overall with Jackson and Pinson serving as the linchpins on the outside, but they are liable to pick-n-roll exposure, and have been awful defending in transition this season. Part of the transition woes stem from their focus on crashing the offensive glass, an area where Bell can certainly hold his own and start easy fast breaks for Oregon.
This will be a Chess match between two of the better coaches in the country. Whichever coach makes the right matchup call and exploits the other squad the best shall be the victor. Jackson and Brooks are each going to be able to score in bunches, so the game could also come down to the role players. Tyler Dorsey, the magnificent March magician has been just about unstoppable this tournament and has scored over 20 points in each of his last seven games. Pinson or Jackson will have their hands full guarding Dorsey, but they both have the length to potentially bother his excellent stroke.
And, of course, Luke Maye will be the x-factor again in this one, because he always is (and also because he’s a potential zone buster and answer to Brooks on the defensive end).
I think this game will be close throughout, but the Heels ultimately will pull away at the end. The sum of the UNC big men will be greater than the singular Jordan Bell. Kansas didn’t have the size to exploit Oregon’s lack of frontcourt depth, the Heels most definitely do. While I do think Oregon’s zone looks could catch UNC off guard every now and then, I think Jackson and Berry are each going to be able to find good looks, and I fully expect Maye to step up at the high-post spot. This will be an entertaining and fun game to watch.
SU Pick: North Carolina
ATS Pick: North Carolina -5
O/U Pick: Over 152