No. 4 North Carolina beats No. 5 Arkansas but loses Kennedy Meeks to sprained knee

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Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks like to play “the fastest 40 minutes in college basketball,” a style in which they use full court pressure to turn over opponents and cash in on the resulting fast break opportunities. However in No. 4 North Carolina, Arkansas ran into a team that also prefers a faster tempo, and the Tar Heels had the advantage in both turnovers and fast break points as they won 87-78 in Jacksonville.

As a result of the win Roy Williams’ team is headed to the West regional semis next week in Los Angeles, where they’ll play either No. 1 Wisconsin or No. 8 Oregon Thursday night.

North Carolina committed 16 turnovers, just over three turnovers per game more than their average on the season (12.7), but that was still better than Arkansas when it comes to ball control. The Razorbacks committed 21 turnovers, which were converted into 23 points by the Tar Heels (plus-six edge in points off turnovers). Also of note regarding the turnovers committed by North Carolina is the fact that not many of those mistakes led to fast break opportunities for Arkansas.

The Razorbacks scored just seven fast break points, seven fewer than North Carolina. Forced to find the majority of their looks against a set up North Carolina defense, Arkansas shot 36.9 percent from the field and 8-for-25 from beyond the arc. Michael Qualls (ten rebounds) led all scorers with 27 points but shot 8-for-19 from the field, and Bobby Portis finished with 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting while also grabbing 12 rebounds.

By comparison North Carolina shot 45.0 percent from the field and 4-for-10 from three, and they also outscored Arkansas 29-22 from the foul line. Marcus Paige scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half, but the efforts of J.P. Tokoto were of greater importance especially when it came to handling the Arkansas pressure. Tokoto, who also scored 13 points, finished with eight assists and no turnovers.

Add in fellow perimeter players Justin Jackson (16 points, three rebounds) and Nate Britt (ten points, four rebounds), and North Carolina had enough productivity to beat Arkansas despite quiet evenings from the majority of their big men.

The front court is where the concern lies for North Carolina in regards to next week, especially if they face Wisconsin, in the aftermath of Saturday’s win. Kennedy Meeks (nine points, four rebounds in 15 minutes) left the game in the second half with what was termed as a sprained left knee, and while the Tar Heels do have options they need Meeks available.

Brice Johnson scored seven points and grabbed 13 rebounds before fouling out, and neither Isaiah Hicks nor Joel James were all that effective against Arkansas. North Carolina will need all four to be productive (with Johnson and Meeks being the key cogs) if they’re to be successful in Los Angeles if they’re to advance. The good news for North Carolina is that they’ll have another game to prepare for, thanks in large part to the play of their perimeter.