Badgering the Badgers: Questions UNC Will Need to Answer Against Wisconsin


North Carolina approaches the door and gives a subtle knock.

It wants access into the exclusive club and when the peep-hole slides open, the Tar Heels are asked for the secret phrase.

Their reply is quick and succinct: “Beat Badgers.”

The two words sound simple enough, but make no mistake. Accomplishing their call will be no easy task.

And if North Carolina wants to claim membership in the desirable Elite 8 fraternity, it will have to topple a Wisconsin squad that is as tough-minded as it is disciplined, and features a player who in all likelihood will scoop up a barrel full of national player of the year awards come season’s end.

Indeed, the Tar Heels were given a formidable mountain to climb when they were slotted as a fourth seed in the NCAA Tourney’s West Region, and the team at the tip of the peak is a Badgers group that if not for a Kentucky team looking to be the first team to complete an unblemished run in 39 years would be at the top of many Vegas oddsmakers’ lists to snip the nets the first Monday night in April.

Wisconsin will throw a sticky and physical man-to-man defense at North Carolina that ranks 10th nationally surrendering just 56.8 points a game. Offensively, the Badgers operate in near mistake-free fashion, leading the country in turnovers with a mere 7.4 cough ups a game. UW also has possibly the nation’s most dynamic front court, anchored by one of the most skilled big men to come along in the past two decades in 7-foot, 240-pound forward Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky.

The Big 10 Player of the Year averages 18.4 points per game and possesses the physicality to wreak havoc inside pulling down over eight boards a contest. Yet, he presents a quandary for opposing defenses given his uncanny proficiency from beyond the arc, where he shoots 40.7 percent. And if his scoring versatility wasn’t enough, he also ranks as Wisconsin’s top assist man averaging 2.7 dishes a game.

No doubt, the mountain to climb will be a steep one, but plenty of expeditions have conquered Everest. While the vast majority of experts have pegged the Badgers as West Region finalists, North Carolina is capable of making them swallow a little crow.

The Tar Heels offer the size as well as one of the country’s more potent offenses to prove the pundits wrong, but they will need their own disciplined — and focused — performance if they hope to move within one game from making the program’s 19th Final Four appearance. North Carolina can certainly survive and advance Thursday night, but here are some questions it will need to answer if it wants to call itself “Elite”:

Who Will Step Up in the Absence of Kennedy Meeks?

Will he or won’t he.

That’s the question foremost on the minds of those in Tar Heel nation when pondering if Meeks will even suit up for Thursday’s matchup.

North Carolina’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward offers the size and scoring to counter Wisconsin’s talented interior but was the victim of a wrong-place, wrong-time injury when an Arkansas player drew a charge and tumbled back into Meeks, spraining his left knee. Meeks didn’t practice Monday and was limited to non-contact work on Tuesday, and whether he steps onto the hardwood against the Badgers is still unsettled.

Even if he does don the baby blue and white, his effectiveness — and minutes — most likely will be limited. So, who’s the next man up to help ease the loss of the 11.5 points- and 7.4 rebounds-per-game player.

The Tar Heels could go big inserting junior 6-foot-10, 280-pound forward Joel James (2.5 points, 1.9 rebounds) or could elect to go more athletic with sophomore 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward Isaiah Hicks, who like James has logged three games as a starter and is averaging 6.6 points and 2.9 boards an outing.

Or head coach Roy Williams could mix things up even further and give sophomore point guard Nate Britt (5.5 points) the starting nod and move Marcus Paige to the No. 2 spot, giving North Carolina essentially with Britt, Paige and surging freshman Justin Jackson operating along the perimeter.

Regardless of the lineup Williams chooses, it will need to find the points and boards to fill the void from a limited or absent Meeks.

Can the Tar Heels Combat Wisconsin’s Other Weapons Besides “The Tank”?

It’s easy to view Wisconsin as a one-man show and with good reason. His stellar play has been even more pronounced in the NCAA Tourney averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in victories over Coastal Carolina and Oregon.

The Badgers, though, have more in their arsenal in a pair of versatile front-line scorers in Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes.

Dekker, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior forward, was a second-team All-Big 10 performer this season and averages 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds a game.

Coming off a freshman campaign which saw him garner the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Hayes was a third-team all-league selection this year averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 grabs off the glass. And like Kaminsky, he has shown a deft touch outside the arc shooting 39.3 percent from long distance.

Each has heightened his play in the NCAA Tournament, with Dekker averaging 18.5 points (while shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range) and Hayes adding 14.5 points a game.

Wisconsin looked to suffer a major setback when point guard Traevon Jackson was sidelined after fracturing a foot in January, but the Badgers have hardly missed a beat with Bronson Koening stepping in and averaging 10 points in NCAA Tourney play.

North Carolina ranks 12th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense with opponents hitting on just 30 percent of their long-range tries, and it will need to clamp down on an offense that provides an effective inside-outside blend.

Will the Tar Heels Steer Clear of Foul Trouble?

To say the officiating has been tight thus far would qualify as an understatement. The seemingly constant chirping of whistles could be heard in nearly every game last weekend, ESPN’s Jay Williams went so far as to label the officials’ performance “atrocious” on Monday’s “Mike & Mike” broadcast.

North Carolina didn’t escape the elevated scrutiny accumulating 43 fouls in wins over Harvard and Arkansas. Prior to his late-game injury, three early fouls limited Meeks to only 15 minutes against Arkansas.

Brice Johnson entered the tourney as one of the nation’s hottest interior players averaging 15.3 points and 8.1 boards while shooting over 61 percent from the field in his previous 17 games. But four fouls against Harvard and a foul-out against the Razorbacks have limited the junior forward to averages of seven points and 25.5 minutes.

Both will need to be upped significantly with the Tar Heels now hampered with a hobbled Meeks.

A hallmark of Wisconsin has been a disciplined program that averages only 12 fouls a game, and the Badgers landed exactly on that number in moving to the Sweet 16.

The Tar Heels will have to adjust to the tightly called play to avoid the attrition that could halt their tournament run.

Can North Carolina Take Advantage of Its Depth?

High-octane offense versus stifling defense. A showdown between two of the nation’s more powerful front courts. The games within the game have received the most attention among the talking heads, and little mention has been made of an obvious depth advantage held by the Tar Heels.

That advantage could gain more of the spotlight with a questionable Meeks, and with the aforementioned officials’ penchant to sound the whistles, if foul issues mount for Wisconsin, or if the injury bug takes a bite, North Carolina’s depth could tip the balance.

The Tar Heels’ bench averages 21.2 points a game compared to the Badgers’ 10.4. Scan the numbers over the last 14 games, and the reserve play is slanted even more in North Carolina’s favor, with the Tar Heels’ non-starters averaging 20.3 points and Wisconsin reserves averaging 5.4.

Against Oregon, the Badgers’ rotation only went seven deep, and their two substitutes managed a combined nine points and eight rebounds. Britt alone had 10 points and four boards to spearhead a 20-point, 11-rebound night turned in by North Carolina’s bench in the Arkansas win.

If the Tar Heels can keep their foul susceptibility in check and Wisconsin finds itself in some uncharacteristic foul difficulty, a productive evening from North Carolina’s bench could push the Tar Heels further along in a hopeful Final Four journey.

Can the Tar Heels Maintain Their Hot Perimeter Play?

While North Carolina’s depth could provide a needed push, the Tar Heels also will look to capitalize on their scoring punch inside.

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North Carolina’s 38.1 points a game in the paint easily outdistances the Badgers’ 29.8, and its 14.2 second-chance points a contest outranks Wisconsin’s 9.8. But with Meeks’ status in limbo, those numbers could tighten.

Enter a Tar Heels perimeter game that has been nothing if not solid in over the past two weeks.

The plantar fasciitis that has plagued Paige for much of the season seems to have eased, and the junior guard is now looking like the player found on the bulk of preseason All-American teams.

Paige’s 22-point effort against Arkansas helped catapult North Carolina into the Sweet 16, and over his last seven games he is averaging 17.9 points while shooting 47.1 percent from the field, including 44 percent from the 3-point range.

Jackson entered the season as the Tar Heels’ most ballyhooed newcomer, and over his last 11 games has emerged as the player worthy of the hype reaching double figures in 10 of the games and averaging 13.3 points a game during the stretch. More importantly, he has provided North Carolina with a much-needed second perimeter threat shooting at a 51.9 percent clip from the floor during his run, including 40 percent outside the arc.

Another efficient night outside not only could ease the sting of Meeks’ possible absence but could counter the Badgers’ stingy defense that will look to clamp down on the Tar Heels’ most viable inside threat in Johnson.