Its easier to slow a game down than it is to speed a game up.
Remember that. Controlling pace is as much of an equalizer as the three-point shot, particularly for a team playing on the road. You limit the number of possessions, you keep your opponent from getting into a rhythm and, if you’re playing on the road, you keep the crowd from getting into the game.
And that is why it wasn’t until an 18-5 run midway through the second half that North Carolina, who was the No. 1 team in the country prior to their loss to UNLV in Vegas on Saturday, was able to gain control in Wednesday’s 60-57 win over Wisconsin.
No team in the country is able to control the flow of a game like Wisconsin can. Want proof? Wisconsin went into Chapel Hill as the slowest team in the country. Literally. They were averaging just 58.9 possessions per game. North Carolina? They were the fifth-fastest team in the country at 73.9 possessions per game.
And this game? It had 59 possessions. In other words, the ball changed hands once every 20-or-so seconds.
That’s what Wisconsin does. That’s how they win. That’s why Bo Ryan can always put a team on the floor that is going to win 25 games and finish in the top three or four in the Big Ten without the aid of future first-rounders. That’s why every fall, Wisconsin is picked lower in the preseason than where they finish the year.
When the Badgers are playing their best basketball, they are taking 20-25 seconds off the shot clock before they even look at the rim. They then run one of their sets, and if nothing is open, the ball is put into the hands of their all-american point guard Jordan Taylor, and they allow him to make a play. They protect the basketball and avoid turnovers as well as any team in the country, and, more often than not, they end up getting a good look at the rim after forcing you to defend for most of the shot clock.
And on Wednesday, after weathering an early flurry from UNC — the Tar Heels took a 19-10 lead in the first nine minutes of the game and looked to be on the verge and blowing the Badgers out — that is precisely what Wisconsin did. For the next 19 minutes of game-time, the Badgers executed to perfection, taking the air out of the ball and hitting big shot after big shot. The only difference was that the guys making those shots were Ben Brust, Ryan Evans, and Jared Berggren, not Taylor.
At the 11:44 mark of the second half, Wisconsin had turned that 19-10 deficit into a 36-31 lead, using a 26-12 surge over the course of both halves to take complete control of the game.
UNC was on their heels. They were completely out of rhythm offensively and looked lost defensively. The performance was bad enough that it had people asking just how good this team actually is.
But Wisconsin gave the Heels an opening, and Roy Williams’ team struck.
The Badger’s next five shots all came way too early in the shot clock. At the same time, Harrison Barnes hit back-to-back jumpers to get UNC into a bit of a rhythm offensively, and that sparked their 18-5, game-changing run as they were able to open up the floor a little bit. Barnes had 10 of his game-high 20 points in that run, and when Dexter Strickland hit a seventeen-footer from the wing with 5:36 left to put the Heels up 49-41, this game was over for all intents and purposes.
That’s why this is an impressive win for the Heels.
UNC had an off-night against a top ten team — a team that is going to win 25 or 30 games and give Ohio State its stiffest test in the Big Ten — and had allowed that team to take complete control of the game, but their best player made a couple of big shots and the Heels were able to strike when given an opening. Good teams win games even when they don’t play their best, and UNC did just that on Wednesday night.
What we learned:
– The Badgers are going to cause a lot of people a lot of problems if they are able to hang with North Carolina on the road while getting a subpar effort out Jordan Taylor and Mike Bruesewitz. Yes, the all-american finished with 18 points, four assists and four rebounds, but he shot 6-20 from the floor and padded his stats with a couple buckets late in the game. Taylor struggled a bit when Dexter Strickland was switched onto him, but he also missed a bunch of open looks that he will knock down the majority of the time.
– Bruesewitz, on the other hand, was a no-show. He was in foul trouble which may have made it difficult for him to get into a rhythm, but off the top of my head, I cannot think of one good thing that he did for the Badgers tonight. That cannot happen, especially when Bruesewitz could have been a matchup problem for UNC’s big men at the offensive end.
– That was the best that I’ve ever seen Ryan Evans play. He was active on the glass, he made some shots and he picked up a couple of blocks.
– Jared Berggren will be able to fill the role of the pick-and-pop center for Bo Ryan. He finished with 14 points and eight boards, which included a couple of triples and two gorgeous drives to the rim from the three point line.
– Ben Brust needs to rein in his shot-selection at times — its a rule of basketball that you can’t take heat-checks on back-to-back possessions if you miss the first — but he’s a talented kid that can shoot the ball and is fun to watch. Badger fans should be confident that they’ll have another talented playmaker to follow in the footsteps of Taylor and Trevon Hughes.
– Dexter Strickland is probably a better defender than I realized. He’s got length, he’s quick laterally, he’s athletic and he looks like he genuinely enjoys defending. His development will be important, because Kendall Marshall — hell, the rest of the Tar Heel perimeter rotation — has trouble defending a stop sign. Strickland’s foul trouble is where you saw Leslie McDonald’s value; the only time Taylor really got it going was at the end of the first half when Kendall Marshall was guarding him.
– I really hope that Harrison Barnes becomes a killer. And not in the Charles Manson sense of the word, in the Tu Holloway sense of the word. His height makes his pull-up jumper unguardable for perimeter defenders at this level. He came up big on Wednesday, hitting the two jumpers that sparked UNC’s run.
– I don’t think struggling is the correct word for North Carolina’s half court execution. Clueless is a better word, as in they look like they’ve never even diagrammed a half court set on the whiteboard, let alone gone over it in practice. They stand around and swing the ball on the perimeter until someone over penetrates or settles for a jumper.
– Roy Williams is famous for his secondary break, which is essentially a system to run once the ball has been pushed in transition but no shots have opened up. The beauty of the secondary break is that it can be run off of makes as well as misses. When UNC gets bogged down offensively its the result of a breakdown in their secondary break.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.