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March 16, 2011

LIU may try to run with Heels

North Carolina's opponent in its NCAA Tournament opener this year, Long Island University of the Northeast Conference, is very interesting in that it tries to do many of the same things that the Tar Heels do.

The Blackbirds (27-5) are a run-and-gun team that averages over 82 points per game, and they may very well try to get into a fast-paced game with the Tar Heels (26-7) despite all conventional wisdom saying it's a horrible idea.

That's what Jim Ferry's team does.

It's how they win ballgames.

Although they never cracked the 100-point plateau this season, Ferry's squad scored in the 90's eight different times and in the 80's another 15 times---including a late-season stretch of nine victories in which Long Island scored no less than 81 points in any game.

LIU likes to run the floor, spread out opposing defenses, create easy scoring opportunities for their finishers around the basket and generally keep the pace up.

Sound familiar?

Long Island is going to be giving away a lot of height to the Tar Heels, with its tallest players no bigger than 6-7.

This, of course, should make for plenty of scoring opportunities for Tyler Zeller and John Henson in this game. This area in and of itself should give UNC fans supreme confidence that they'll be moving on to the next round.

But the Blackbirds are a solid team shooting in transition, which could create a few problems for the Tar Heels as it did in the ACC Tournament last weekend against Miami, Clemson, and Duke.

Long Island has four players averaging in double figures, led by 6-7 sophomore forwards Jamal Olasewere and Julian Boyd, who each average 12.9 points a game.

LIU's scoring is pretty balanced, with everyone in the starting lineup averaging at least 9.3 points per game, and three bench players getting at least six points an outing.

Like North Carolina, Long Island seeks to work the ball inside to its finishers in key scoring opportunities, and Olasewere and Boyd are good enough and athletic enough to have had their way with much of its competition this winter.

Along with their scoring averages, they are averaging 15.6 rebounds between them.

But against Henson and Zeller, Long Island's frontcourt opportunities are realistically going to be limited in a way they've never imagined before.

That means that the Blackbirds are going to make three-pointers---lots of them---if they expect to stay competitive with the second-seeded Tar Heels.

Interestingly enough, Long Island does have three players in its top eight rotation averaging 40 percent or better from three-point range---starter Kyle Johnson (40.8 percent) and reserves Michael Culpo and Jason Brickman, who each shoot 40 percent from behind the arc.

By comparison, UNC has just two players (Kendall Marshall and Leslie McDonald) shooting 37 percent or better from three-point range---although Harrison Barnes has pulled much closer coming off his incredible ACC Tournament performance.

Long Island does turn the ball over quite a bit---over 16 times a game to be exact---with Olasewere committing over three of those turnovers a game on average himself.

The Tar Heel forwards will want to rattle LIU's top big man with stifling defensive pressure and by blocking some of his early shots---something that doesn't happen a whole lot in the Northeast Conference to Olasewere.

The other thing UNC will want to do defensively is put a lot of pressure on LIU's guards, who shouldn't used to the kind of size and dynamic athleticism that North Carolina's backcourt rotation possesses.

Even with a challenging matchup looming against either Georgia or Washington on Sunday, UNC can't afford to look ahead too much ahead against a LIU team riding a nation's-best 13-game winning streak coming into this year's NCAAs to go along with wins in 21 out of its last 22 games.

They know how to win and they have that winner's mentality, which is always dangerous even with the physical shortcomings LIU is giving away to Carolina's bigger and more athletic players.

Of course, UNC could do itself a favor as well and avoid the dreadful starts that plagued them throughout its three day run in Greensboro this past weekend.

This is the type of game for Carolina where they need to simply come out, establish its dominance from the get-go, and take care of business.

They're going to be playing in front of a very favorable crowd in Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena---an almost home-like atmosphere---and despite LIU's lofty record, there's really no viable excuse for North Carolina allowing them to give them a serious run for its money as long as they do what they need to do.

LIU has had an inspiring run and did an impressive job winning its conference tournament, but Midnight should strike for the Blackbirds Friday night so long as the Tar Heels play solid perimeter defense and do what it does best---run and create opportunities for its scorers.

Since LIU will go potentially into the game with the exact same mindset, perhaps it will be all the more easier for Roy Williams and his troops.





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