MEMPHIS -- The kid Carolina couldn't afford to be without was in the locker room on Sunday, wearing a suit and holding the South Regional trophy, proudly surveying the scene in front of him. Marcus Ginyard had no need to shower; he's on a medical redshirt and hasn't played since Jan. 4. One week after his last game, the Tar Heels lost to Wake Forest to fall to 0-2 in the ACC, and the early verdict on them was that, without Ginyard, their senior lockdown artist, they had little chance of defending well enough to win a national title.
But here at FedEx Forum, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the Tar Heels withstood the superhuman force of Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, holding him to 23 points (seven under his tournament average), and forced the Sooners' guards into shooting 2-of-19 from beyond the arc in a 72-60 victory (RECAP | BOX). And Ginyard was pleased that his presence was no longer so sorely missed. "I think it's our best defensive performance that I can remember," he said. "I loved every bit of it. And I loved how everyone thought we couldn't [defend]."
Just to clarify for a moment: It's not as if Carolina has suddenly turned into 1996 Kentucky, smothering every team in its path with defensive pressure. These Heels, who are similarly loaded with NBA talent, will never be in the same league on defense. But what makes them the overwhelming favorite in Detroit is that fact that, as point guard Ty Lawson said, "we're actually guarding people now." They double-teamed Griffin without getting exploited on the perimeter, swarming to recover in time to challenge shooters Tony Crocker and Willie Warren. They did not look like the same Carolina team that was so porous in January. "I don't think [Oklahoma] was ready for that," said freshman Ed Davis. "People don't look at us as a defensive team, so that really messed with them."
Nitpicking Carolina has been pundits' favorite pastime this season, but the Heels were near-flawless in Memphis, where they played defense, Lawson looked like the nation's best point guard (he won the Most Outstanding Player award), they survived a game at an undesirably slow pace, and overcame an eight-point, six-rebound effort from Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough's off-night could be explained by Blake Griffin-related foul trouble, and the rest of the Heels appeared to be firing on all cylinders. Two days earlier, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose team had just been throttled 98-77 by the Heels, said, "If all 16 of us play at the top of our game, North Carolina wins the national championship. I just feel like, when they're playing at their highest end, they're better than the rest of us."
As we head to the Final Four, that statement still applies.
Herewith, our breakdown of a half-chalky foursome in Detroit:
South Region: No. 1 North Carolina
Tournament Identity: The Heels were Team Toe in the first two rounds, as lingering questions over Lawson's jammed right toe dominated every media session. He sat out the first-round win over Radford, but played 31 minutes against LSU in the second, scoring 23 points, and went on to be the Most Outstanding Player in Memphis, dishing out 14 assists against just two turnovers in wins over Gonzaga and Oklahoma.
Lawson is still getting treatment for the toe -- on Friday, he had his whole foot in an icebath, and on Sunday, he was icing it again -- but thinks the injury might actually be making him a better point guard. "I can't go as fast, so I have time to make the right decisions," he said. "Maybe I don't want my toe to get better."
How To Let Them Beat You: Fail to keep Lawson out of the lane. He's doing less damage in transition now, but he's still dangerous in the halfcourt, where his main attack plan is to poke through the first line of defense, then hit a pull-up jumper or create an open shot for a teammate. Sleeping on Danny Green is a bad idea, too: He's stepped up to the point where it should no longer be a surprise when he has a huge game -- he had 18 points against Oklahoma, and 13 and seven assists against Gonzaga. He makes so many big plays on the glass and in transition that he's become more of a defensive problem than Wayne Ellington.
How to Beat Them: The slowdown game didn't work for Oklahoma, which thought it might be able to grind and let Blake Griffin score 50 percent of its points. The key is to get big nights out of guards who can penetrate and challenge Carolina in transition -- and neither Austin Johnson nor Willie Warren really did that on Sunday. As improved as the Heels are on defense, they still may strugge to stop aggressive ballhanders from getting to the rim.
East Region: No. 3 Villanova
Tournament Identity: Team Clutch. The 'Cats pulled off a second-half rally to escape 14th-seeded American in the first round, then rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight on the greatest play of the tournament: Scottie Reynolds' dual homage to the Bryce Drew inbounds pass from 1998 and the Tyus Edney scramble from 1995.
Villanova is guard-heavy, with a frontcourt that's just 6-foot-7 and 6-8, but don't mistake the Wildcats for a finesse team. They're a gritty, physical squad that locked down on Duke to the point that Blue Devils star Gerald Henderson, who was 1-of-14 from the field in the Sweet 16, said, "That's the best defense I've seen this year, and it was every [possession]." In the Elite Eight, 'Nova did the improbable and out-toughed Pitt, winning the rebounding battle 33-28 and holding DeJuan Blair to just two offensive boards.
How To Let Them Beat You: Foul them too frequently. Reynolds' heroics will be the enduring memory of the Elite Eight, but 'Nova really beat Pitt at the foul line, going 22-of-23 while the Panthers were just 21-of-29. Guards Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Reggie Redding are hard to defend one-on-one, and unflappable from the stripe late in games. Their goal is to attack the rim as much as possible, even though they're all capable three-point shooters; against Pitt, coach Jay Wright insisted that they "don't settle for jump shots," and their early second-half surge was almost all a result of buckets in the paint.
How To Beat Them: As good as 'Nova's guards are, they've been vulnerable to frenetic pressure. The only team to defeat them twice this season is Louisville, which pressed the Wildcats into 23 turnovers -- including six by Reynolds -- in the Big East tournament on March 13. Rattle Reynolds and force him into one of his off-nights, where he's shooting a low percentage from the field and not setting up teammates, and the Wildcats are vulnerable.
West Region: No. 1 UConn
Tournament Identity: Off the floor, the Huskies were Team Drama, with coach Jim Calhoun missing their first-round win over Chattanooga because he was hospitalized for dehydration, and the entire program facing questions about alleged NCAA violations in the wake of an expose on the recruitment of Nate Miles. On the floor, though, their dominance was relatively drama-free. Their 103-47 win over Chattanooga was the third-largest rout in NCAA history (Mocs coach John Shulman said his team was hit by a "monsoon"), and although the scores against Texas A&M (92-66), Purdue (72-60) and Missouri (82-75) got progressively closer, UConn didn't sweat profusely on the road to Detroit. Previously star-crossed senior guard A.J. Price has been averaging 20 points per game in the tournament and taking the bulk of the big shots. He's their engine, despite frequently playing off the ball when freshman Kemba Walker, who was brilliant with 23 points against Mizzou, takes over the point. Forward Stanley Robinson, who rejoined the team for the second semester, has morphed from an X-Factor into a dominant force. Robinson locked down A&M's Josh Carter and Purdue's Robbie Hummel, and has averaged 14.8 points in the tourney, compared to a season average of 8.2.
How To Let Them Beat You: Guards Price and Walker are too strong with the ball to be flustered by full-court D, so pressure them at your own peril. Louisville tried it on Feb. 2 and lost 68-51 at home; Mizzou tried it in the Elite Eight and lost 82-75. On offense, if you're intimidated by the 7-3 presence of Hasheem Thabeet, and end up shooting contested jumpers instead of driving the lane, you've fallen into the Huskies' trap. Plenty of teams have: It's no fluke that UConn is ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency.
How To Beat Them: Impersonate Pittsburgh. Blair repeatedly put his shoulder Thabeet's body, scored on him and got him into foul trouble. If you don't have a physical presence to challenge Thabeet, at least try to pull him away from the basket by making him guard pick-and-pop situations and hedge on ball-screens. You'll also need a defender who can check Price off the dribble; he's 1-of-9 from long distance in his past two games, but has been deadly with floaters in the lane.
Midwest Region: No. 2 Michigan State
Tournament Identity: Team Suton (And Assorted Stars). Senior center Goran Suton said he didn't even know about the Final Four until he left Bosnia to attend high school in Lansing, Mich. Now he's responsible for leading the Spartans to one, with his understated inside game and deadly range for a big man. Suton had 11 points and 17 rebounds against Robert Morris; seven and 10 against USC, while also holding Taj Gibson to four points; 20 and nine against Kansas to match Cole Aldrich's 17 and 14; and then 19 and 10 against Louisville. Suton is sometimes a reluctant offensive force -- against Lousiville, coach Tom Izzo had to tell him, "Shoot the ball or I'm going to take you out" -- and he'll probably be the most unheralded star in Detroit. Point Kalin Lucas, a poised Motor City product who scored seven points in the final minute of a Sweet 16 nailbiter against Kansas, is more the face of the team.
How To Let Them Beat You: Allow the Spartans to impose their will, like Louisville did, succumbing to the intensity of a physical man-to-man defense that ground the Cards' running game to a halt. Izzo devised a game plan that kept Louisville from scoring a single fastbreak point, a stat that's almost unfathomable. Teams that fail to guard Suton on the perimeter will be in trouble, too; few centers are used to having to defend a Euro-style big man, and he tends to make them pay in pick-and-pop situations.
How to Beat Them: In the postgame press conference after Louisville's 64-52 loss, coach Rick Pitino said, "You're going to have to make shots against them, because they don't give you good looks." The Cards shot just 38.3 percent from the field, and didn't seem to be able to work for open looks in halfcourt situations. Teams will also need to defend the three better than Louisville did; the Spartans are only an average three-point shooting team on the year (they ranked 96th in the country, at 35.8 percent), but the Cards allowed them to make 8 of 16 attempts. If Lucas, Suton and Durrell Summers can't make treys against UConn, it could get ugly.
North Carolina 76, Villanova 70. The Wildcats' guards are too good to let this one turn into a blowout, and Wright has them defending well enough to keep the game out of the 80s ... but it all goes back to what Few said: as long as the Tar Heels play up to their potential, no one can beat them. They learned their lesson about coming out flat in San Antonio, when Kansas ran them out of the Alamodome, and won't let it happen two years in a row.
UConn 72, Michigan State 71. The Huskies, unlike Louisville, will be fine in a halfcourt battle with the Spartans. Jeff Adrien, Thabeet and Robinson are physical enough inside to outplay Suton, Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe, and Price and Walker are better versions of Lucas and Walton. The Spartans' home-state advantage can only take them so far.