As the Harvard men's basketball team (22-7, 11-3 Ivy league) prepares to face the University of North Carolina (24-11, 11-7 ACC) Saturday, Crimson staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman got in touch with a reporter on the Tar Heels beat to learn about this year's Carolina squad. Here's what Ross Martin, a writer/editor for CarolinaBlue.com, had to say:
JDHF: What is the biggest difference between the UNC team that slid during the last ten games of the regular season and the one that made it to the ACC final?
RM: Shot making, the emergence of Brice Johnson, and toughness to close out games. UNC shot 45.5 percent from three in the win over Louisville and 50.0 percent from long range against Virginia. Junior forward Brice Johnson had 53 points combined in the three tournament wins and became a consistent and reliable inside threat on the offensive end. Against the Cardinals and Cavaliers, UNC was able to make stops down the stretch and nail free throws in the final minute to seal the big tournament wins, something they have struggled with all season.
JDHF: The Tar Heels played an absolutely brutal schedule this year, including seven non-conference games against tournament teams (is that right?), one of which was undefeated Kentucky. Did that help or hurt this team? How so?
RM: Yeah that's right. Kentucky, Ohio State, UCLA, Davidson, Iowa, UAB, and Butler. UNC went 5-2 in those games. I think the game against Kentucky and to a lesser sense Iowa (games they both lost) just illustrated the level that this UNC team needed to be playing at in order to beat the best. You have to play mistake free basketball and be consistent on offense and defense to have a chance.
I think what has prepared UNC the most is the ACC schedule. The Tar Heels played No. 1 seed Duke twice, No. 2 seed UVA twice, No. 4 seed Louisville three times, and No. 8 seed N.C. State twice (a team some are national analysts are picking to reach the Sweet Sixteen). UNC has played and beaten some of the best teams in the nation, so that toughness and confidence is huge heading into the tournament.
JDHF: What has given UNC trouble in its losses?
RM: Turnovers have been a big issue for this team. They are a little loose with the ball and sometimes make passes they shouldn't. Despite the showing in the ACC tournament, outside shooting has been a weakness throughout the season. Traditionally, North Carolina is thought of as a potent offensive machine, but this season the Heels have struggled at times to score. In the regular season, North Carolina really lacked a go-to scorer who could drop 18-20 points night in and night out.
JDHF: What has been the theme of this season for the Tar Heels?
RM: It’s a talented team that has been inconsistent and has had trouble closing out games. Despite the big conference tournament run, the Tar Heels have let some games go in the last three minutes. (most notably the 92-90 overtime loss to Duke and the 78-68 loss at Louisville where UNC led by 18 in the second half). They are a big team that can be great inside. UNC can be outstanding on the offensive boards and have won games based on second chance scoring opportunities. They are a deep team that, when healthy, can go 10 deep.
JDHF: What makes Marcus Paige such a threat? How critical is he to the team's success?
RM: Paige is undoubtedly the leader and heartbeat of this team. When he is orchestrating the offensive, driving to the basket, and his shots are dropping, UNC is so much better. His scoring is critical because North Carolina really lacks another consistent perimeter scorer. He a very good on the ball defender and smart player on both ends of the floor.
JDHF: Who is the X-factor for Carolina?
RM: Freshman Justin Jackson had a coming out party in the ACC tournament semi-final win over Virginia where he scored 22 points on 8-10 shooting (4-5 from three). That game was his eighth straight game scoring in double figures. If he can knock down two or three threes it takes the pressure off of Paige and really opens things up inside. Jackson can be the second perimeter scorer UNC really needs.
JDHF: What kind of game do you expect Thursday? Got a prediction?
RM: From the UNC side, I think the Tar Heels will try to beat Harvard with their athleticism and size. North Carolina recruits a different level player than the Crimson and they will try to look take advantage of mismatches offensively. Look for the Tar Heels to pound the ball inside early and establish Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks from the start. They will also push the ball on the break to increase the number of possessions and ramp up the pace of the game.
I can see UNC struggling with a solid defensive team like Harvard. The Tar Heels have had periods of inept scoring this season, so an experienced team defense could pose problems. Turnovers are a weakness and if the Tar Heels can't hold on to the ball it could be closer than expected.
UNC 72, Harvard 59