Michigan State has played its three fastest games of the year in the Big Ten or NCAA tournament. Knowing what we know about UNC, the second of Saturday’s semifinal games figures to be played with 70-80 possessions, but only seven of those possessions are going to tell the story of this game.
Much has been made about UNC’s defense this week. Michigan State as a five-seed, is not a huge underdog, mainly because of their ability to score and the Tar Heels perceived inability to prevent the score. But is UNC’s defense really a liability?
They had ascended to the number one spot in the adjusted defensive efficiency rankings after holding Clemson to 56 points on February 19th. This completed a remarkable ten-week span of championship-level defense where over 21 consecutive games, UNC allowed a point per possession only twice. This period covered three quarters of the ACC schedule and included non-conference games against UConn and Kentucky.
Beginning with the NC State game on February 22nd, nine of ten Tar Heel opponents have breached the point per possession mark. Part of this was attributable to Rashad McCants’ absence. But McCants has returned to his usual minutes in the NCAA tourney, and UNC is coming off of its worst defensive game of the year against Wisconsin – the Badgers’ offensive efficiency was 118.
The culprit has been UNC’s inability to create turnovers. Before McCants left, UNC had forced at least 13 turnovers in every game. Since? Only three of ten opponents have have had that many turnovers. During the first twelve games of the ACC season, UNC opponents were committing a turnover once in every four possessions. During the NCAA Tournament that number has dropped to one in six.
In a 75 possession game, that’s a potential difference of seven turnovers. Give MSU seven extra possessions, and they’ll get about ten points. That puts an awful lot of pressure on UNC’s prolific offense to pull out a victory. It pretty much requires Raymond Felton to play 38 minutes, given how poor UNC has looked with him on the bench.
It unlikely that UNC can hold the big green S to less than a point per possession, even by playing their January-type defense. The Spartans have failed to reach that mark only three times in 32 games, and are coming off of arguably their best offensive game of the season, hanging a 126 OE on Kentucky. But Michigan State can play at that lofty level again if they adhere to the 15/15 rule: gather more than 15 offensive boards, and turn it over fewer than 15 times. That’s the recipe for an upset.