Wildcats look to slow Tar Heels

Bob Donnan/US Presswire

North Carolina and Kentucky face off Saturday in a rematch of last year's Elite Eight game.

Two of the nation’s most successful college basketball programs will take center stage on Saturday when the fifth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels and top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats square off at Rupp Arena.

Though the Tar Heels suffered a setback against UNLV on November 26, both teams have national title expectations for this season. One of the keys to Saturday’s game will be the pace of play, and how successful North Carolina’s transition offense is against Kentucky’s defense.

Transition Plays
First 7 Games This Season

North Carolina plays at one of the fastest paces in the nation, averaging 74 possessions per 40 minutes this season. The Tar Heels have had success in transition this season, shooting over 60 percent and averaging more than 20 points per game on the break.

Kentucky plays at a slower pace, averaging 71 possessions per 40 minutes, but the Wildcats have shown that they can play an up-tempo style as well. Kentucky has had 73 or more possessions in four of its seven games this season, including its win over Kansas on November 15.

While Kentucky plays at a much faster pace than Wisconsin (59 possessions per game), the Wildcats may want to look at how the Badgers played against North Carolina as a blueprint for stopping the Tar Heels in transition.

North Carolina
Transition Offense This Season

UNC had just 60 possessions against Wisconsin on Wednesday, the fourth-fewest in the Roy Williams era (since 2003-04). Consequently, the Tar Heels transition offense struggled, despite still winning by three.

Kendall Marshall’s ability to push the ball up the floor is one of the main reasons for the Tar Heel’s transition success this season. Two-thirds of his 30 possessions on the break have ended in assists, resulting in 43 points.

However, Marshall has really struggled on the defensive end of the floor. As an on-ball defender he's allowed his opponents to shoot 44 percent from the floor and score an average of 1.04 points per possession, which ranks 63rd out of 68 qualifying ACC players (minimum 25 plays scouted by Synergy).

Marshall lacks lateral quickness, a weakness that is really exposed on catch-and-shoot plays on the perimeter. Opponents have made 12-of-22 (55 percent) shots on those plays, including 11-of-21 (53 percent) from beyond the arc.

In last year's Elite Eight game vs. Kentucky, Marshall couldn’t contain the Wildcats, allowing 11 points on eight possessions as an on-ball defender. His opponents shot 4-for-8 from the floor, including 3-of-3 from downtown. Each of those three-point field goals came on catch-and-shoot plays.

Marshall's defensive issues may not be exposed as much on Saturday if he's matched up against Marquis Teague. The freshman point guard has not proven himself yet to be a prolific catch-and-shoot scorer, making just 5-of-16 shots (31 percent) on those plays.

However, two of his teammates -- Doron Lamb and Darius Miller -- have combined to make nearly 50 percent of their shots in catch-and-shoot situations. If Marshall is forced to guard either of them, Kentucky could be on its way to a résumé-building win while solidifying its claim as the number one team in the nation.