Joel Berry II hopes to shoot North Carolina into Sweet 16, but junior point guard is questionable for Sunday's second-round game with Arkansas, who employs similar style to Tar Heels. (Photo by David Welker/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)
North Carolina got to enjoy a comfortable first-round victory in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday, but the road does not get any smoother for the Tar Heels in their quest for a national championship.
With a 103-64 demolition of Texas Southern now under its belt, UNC (28-7) embarks on its next contest, a 6:10 p.m. tipoff Sunday night against Arkansas, the No. 8 seed in the South Regional who defeated Seton Hall to earn a date with the top-seeded Tar Heels in Greenville.
"I think it will work to our advantage, especially the way we got after it in the second half even with the big lead," Isaiah Hicks suggested when asked how UNC's dominating victory would affect their preparation. "Coach challenged us at halftime to keep working on our stuff, running our plays, focusing on what we do. It has to help with building our momentum for our next game."
While the Razorbacks pose a similar matchup with their uptempo offense, it is what they do on the defensive end that suggests that UNC may have a leg up in attempting to solve their latest opponent, as Theo Pinson likened their schemes to a familiar foe that the Tar Heels held in check on their way to a regular season Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
"They're sort of like Louisville," he said of Arkansas (26-9) and their defensive makeup. "They switch up, they give you a lot of different looks. They're long, really active, and they have big, strong post players. That's the beauty of the ACC. Playing in this league helps prepare you for anything you might face."
Arkansas is also well acquainted with UNC, having also faced them in a second-round NCAA Tournament game two years ago. While the rosters for both sides have changed to some degree, their style has been constant for the most part.
"They play a similar style to two years ago, pressing, picking up full court," said senior guard Nate Britt, a sophomore on the Tar Heel team that scored an 87-78 win over the Razorbacks in Jacksonville to reach the Sweet 16, where they were defeated by Wisconsin. "They like to talk about playing chaotic, and we like that too, because that means we'll play at a fast pace, which is what we want."
Conference play and a past matchup on this stage to fall back on are certainly helpful assists for a team in its postseason escapades, but even that cannot account for the preparation of having to compete without an integral piece of the puzzle, something UNC may have to navigate should point guard Joel Berry II be unavailable. The junior injured his ankle in Friday's win over Texas Southern, and while he insists he will be able to give it a go, his coach was much more noncommittal.
"He's been getting treatment," said Roy Williams of Berry's rehabilitation. "I'm hopeful that he'll play. We'll have to see what it's like. When I got the notice that we played at 6:00, the way I looked at it was that it's four more hours for Joel to heal, so I'm hopeful that we'll have him."
With or without Berry, the Tar Heels recognize the importance of their half court offense against Mike Anderson's Razorbacks, and believe that they will benefit more from a faster pace than Arkansas' four-guard attack. But there are three objectives that UNC will need to adhere to in order to punch their ticket to a third consecutive regional semifinal.
"We want a fast pace, Arkansas wants a fast pace," Williams reiterated. "But we've got to make sure we're not careless, we're not casual, we're not cool. If you're careless, casual or cool when you're playing with them, you're going back home."
"If we can get some rebounds to where they don't have a chance to set up for their press, I think that's the first objective," Berry added. "The second one is just getting the ball out fast if they do score. This is the kind of game I love, and it's going to be a fun game. It's going to be aggressive, but I think that we have the team and the guards to be able to withstand their press; and if we could just stop them from scoring, just get our rebounds and get out on the break, that will play right into our hands."