Yesterday afternoon/evening we were treated to a game that at least in my opinion stands out as the single best one played in the tournament thus far (although it helps that I enjoyed the result more than if the outcome had been reversed). Yesterday's tilt between North Carolina and Kansas was a war. Until the very end, it was close throughout, with neither side holding more than a seven-point lead. Unlike the Indiana-Kentucky rematch, there were spurts of great offense AND great defense. And unlike Carolina's recent bout with Ohio, both teams took pretty good care of the ball (18 combined turnovers).
It was also a matchup of two of the best coaches in America, albeit very different ones. I have never been high on Roy Williams as an in-game coach; I think he does a mediocre (or worse) job of making in-game adjustments in close games. The good thing for him is that he rarely has to worry about that, with a talented roster that usually fits his up-tempo system to a tee. When Roy has the right pieces in place, the Tar Heels are an efficient machine that bulldozes and overwhelms opponents in just about every facet of the game. But that machine depends upon its parts, and none is more valuable than a point guard who keeps the whole thing humming in fifth gear.
Now, Roy did a terrific job of preparing his team to play without Kendall Marshall. Stilman White, whom I believe played one of the Butcher brothers in Hoosiers, had two very good games as Marshall's replacement, totaling six points and thirteen assists (including a pair of beautiful lobs to Harrison Barnes yesterday) without turning the ball over once, and engineering the Heels to 47 first-half points against Kansas. But it was clearly visible, as Marv Albert and Steve Kerr pointed out in the telecast, that when Carolina was forced to run a half-court offense, they labored. Without Marshall's ability to create on the fly, or his new-found ability to create offense for himself, the Heels struggled to generate points when they were not running (particularly against a team like Kansas that almost matched them in size, negating Carolina's usual mega-advantage on the glass).
Plenty of those struggles were due to the different defensive looks that Bill Self threw at Carolina. At the start of the game, it was clear that Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson had been instructed to pressure and hassle White as much as possible, hoping to force him into turnovers. Instead, that pressure led to open lanes and easy looks against the help defense, while Kansas relaxed on their own end, missing a dunk by Thomas Robinson on their first possession and casually giving a pair of passes away to James Michael McAdoo that both led to breakaway slams. And so Self changed things up, removing the pressure component and playing a more relaxed man-to-man defense that essentially dared the Heels to beat them from behind the arc, a weakness for this particular Carolina team. While this slowed the Heels down offensively, Kansas was unable to gain any serious separation; every time in the second half that they threatened to put some distance between them and Carolina, Williams' team responded and cut the margin.
But then Self hit upon a solution; he threw out a rarely-seen triangle-and-two zone, with his two best perimeter defenders (generally Johnson and Travis Releford) playing man defense on Barnes and either Reggie Bullock or P. J. Hairston and taking away their opportunities to shoot. And it worked brilliantly. Carolina had not seen this type of defense all year, and it showed. The keys were that the Kansas big men (Robinson, Jeff Withey, and Kevin Young) were able to body up Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and McAdoo and prevent them from getting second-chance points off of offensive rebounds, and that the lightly guarded perimeter players (White and Justin Watts) were not able to take advantage of openings and create their own offense. Self also made the decision to stick with the seven-foot Withey after he picked up his fourth foul trying to draw a charge on Barnes with just under four minutes to play, a decision that paid major dividends when Withey made two monster blocks on Henson and White, which led directly to a three-point play by Taylor and a dunk by Releford.
In the end, Carolina just could not quite overcome the injuries to so many of their key players, with Marshall and guards Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland on the bench, and Henson hobbled by a sprained wrist and a twisted ankle suffered early in the first half yesterday. But it would be hard to overstate how tremendous a coaching job Self has done at Kansas this year. The Jayhawks lost four starters and two key subs (three of whom became first-round draft picks), and did not add any talent to speak of (sophomore Justin Wesley was the only underclassman to see any minutes yesterday, and he played two spot minutes in the first half when both Withey and Young picked up two fouls). That meant that role players had to get better, and that they did. Releford, Johnson, Withey, and of course Robinson all saw their roles expand a great deal this year, and together with the mercurial Taylor (who also played the best basketball of his four-year starting career this year) have carried Kansas back to the Final Four. Self has been able to do every aspect of his job very well, and I would say that he has to be considered the best coach in the country today, and his team's performance against the most talented roster in the country yesterday is good proof of that.