Well, the Wisconsin Badgers (17-12 overall, 10-10 Big Ten) have somehow finally crawled out of the Shawshank Redemption-esque sewer that is the Big Ten Conference this year and have emerged in Indiana with a No. 9 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for Greg Gard and company, the Badgers got an incredibly unfavorable matchup in the No. 8 seed North Carolina Tar Heels (18-10 overall, 10-6 ACC).
Now, it’s true that Roy Williams’ squad in Chapel Hill is not what it used to be this year. There’s no Vince Carter or Michael Jordan or James Worthy or Tyler Hansbrough to take over a game. They’re a No. 8 seed for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad by any means.
There’s one number that should scare the hell out of the Badgers, and it isn’t a number from an individual player. It isn’t even Roy Williams’ 900 career wins as a coach.
That number is 15.89.
15.89 is the number of offensive rebounds the Tar Heels grab per game. That’s the best in the country by a wide margin. They’re the only team in college basketball with over 400 offensive rebounds, and they eclipsed that by a significant margin (445 total OREBs).
These numbers are helped by a three-headed monster of forwards that stand 6’10” or taller. Sophomore Armando Bacot leads the team in scoring with 12.3 points per game and adds 8 total rebounds on average. Bacot also nabs 3.2 offensive boards per game.
Senior Garrison Brooks brings experience to the frontcourt and adds 2.1 offensive boards per game. The Alabama native is also one of three Tar Heels to average more than 10 points per game.
The final head of the Hydra is 6’11” freshman Day’Ron Sharpe, who averages just under 10 points and eight rebounds per game. Sharpe comes off the bench for Williams, but that means just about nothing; he shoots at a 52% clip and leads the team in offensive rebounding. Sharpe is also one of two Tar Heels to have 20+ blocks and steals on the season (Brooks is the other).
Wisconsin’s senior frontcourt of Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers will need to play out of their minds to pull off a win on Friday evening, and recent history doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Potter and Reuvers famously became the first duo of centers to play 15+ minutes and not record a single rebound in a game against Hunter Dickinson and Michigan. Their performance against All-American big man Kofi Cockburn of Illinois was also worrisome. And while Potter has picked up his game in recent weeks, Reuvers has struggled to find his shot and be effective on both offense and defense.
Perhaps it’s unfair to use performances against two No. 1 seeds in the tournament as an example. North Carolina isn’t even close to what Michigan and Illinois are this year. But in the frontcourt, they’re about as close as a No. 8 seed could be.
Now, you might be asking: if North Carolina’s frontcourt is so good, how is it that they’re only an 8-seed? It’s simple, really; inexperienced guard play.
All of UNC’s rotation guards except for one are freshmen. The lone exception is senior Andrew Platek, who averages 3.8 points per game in around 13 minutes. And while the freshmen of UNC have shown some inconsistent play, they are more than capable of going off.
Missouri native Caleb Love leads all Tar Heel guards in scoring at 10.5 points per game, but doesn’t offer much else. He is shooting around 26% from three-point range and under 32% from the field. Love leads the team with 3.6 assists per game.
I’d be remiss to not mention freshman R.J. Davis, who’s become a household name in Westchester, N.Y. basketball spheres. The White Plains, N.Y. native lit it up at Archbishop Stepinac High School on his way to multiple D-1 offers. While the 6’0” shifty guard has plenty of potential, he’s seen some growing pains in the college game; he shoots slightly better than Love (35.5% from the field) but has a 1.0 assist/turnover ratio. Badger point guard D’Mitrik Trice’s AST/TO ratio is 2.32.
UNC’s guard rotation is rounded out by Kerwin Walton and Leaky Black. Walton is one of the more efficient players on the Tar Heel roster, shooting 44% from the field and 41% from three. Black is a distributor and defensive specialist, notching the second-best assist per game average on the team and leading the team in steals. Both of them have cool names.
If there is one clear advantage that the Badgers have, it’s their experience at the guard position. Trice, Trevor Anderson, and Brad Davison are all seniors looking for their one last shot at glory (unless they decide to come back next year, which they could because of the NCAA’s rules for this season, but just roll with me here). They’ve played hundreds more basketball games than the Tar Heels have, and they all have experience in the NCAA tournament that UNC’s players don’t.
And, to make it even better for the Badgers, there is some recent history we can look at to see how it could play out. Illinois Freshman point guard Andre Curbelo established himself as the X-Factor of Illinois’ dominant team. But against Trice and the Badgers, Curbelo had a very rough time creating for himself or for his teammates. If the Badgers can recreate how they shut down Curbelo on UNC’s greenhorn guards, they may be able to force them into enough bad shots to win the game. But again, that’s where the offensive rebounding prowess comes in.
North Carolina opened as a 1-point favorite and they’ve since moved up to a 2-point favorite. The total is currently at 137.5.
The game will be broadcast on CBS at 6:10 p.m. Central Time.