North Carolina playing in early April is not a shock for college basketball fans. The only change this season is that they are in the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament, playing against the Dayton Flyers tonight at Madison Square Garden (7:00 pm, ESPN).
After a prolonged season of disappointments for both teams, they will match up in New York City tonight with something to prove to the entire nation. The NCAA Tournament resumes again on Saturday, meaning that for one night in NYC, the attention of the college basketball world is on UNC and UD.
As the resident UD follower here at WFNY, I’m here to break down the match up between the two teams and provide some insight as a viewer’s guide. I’ve been fortunate enough all year long to serve as the chief sports staff writer for the Flyer News on campus and it should be a fun game to watch tonight as it is a clash of the ACC vs. A-10.
Tonight’s game will be the third-ever match-up for the two teams as Dayton makes it first appearance in the NIT Finals since 1968. That’s strange since the Flyers actually lead the nation in all-time NIT runner-up finishes with five, the last coming in ’58.
Both teams are just now starting to peak although they started with much higher expectations than the NIT Finals. Dayton was the pre-season favorite to win the Atlantic 10 and began the year in the top 25 in most major rankings. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are the reigning NCAA Champions but have the second-most losses in program history this season with 16.
Just like in the NCAA Tournament, teams in the NIT have to start peaking at the exact perfect time. For both of these schools, it required an opening round home win followed by a pair of difficult road contests before heading over to the Garden for the semifinals.
UD was a #3 seed in their bracket and I had the honor of sitting on press row for their opening round victory over Illinois State. The Flyers then went on the road to beat Cincinnati and Illinois before defeating Ole Miss on Tuesday. Surprisingly, North Carolina was a #4 seed, taking down William & Mary at home, Mississippi State and UAB on the road, and then holding on to beat Rhode Island in overtime the other day.
Dayton (24-12, 8-8 A-10)
Star Player: junior F Chris Wright (13.7 pts, 7.2 rebs in 28.6 mins)
Sidekick: soph. F Chris Johnson (11.8 pts, 6.9 rebs in 24.3 mins)
Telling Stat: 19th in nation with +5.8/game rebounding margin
I described the UD team to my family the other day as the “anti-Ohio State.” Where the Buckeyes had maybe four players play significant minutes all season, head coach Brian Gregory almost trusts his way bench too much. Junior forward Chris Wright leads the team with just 28.6 minutes per game as 11 players in total average at least 8.2 per game.
The Flyers are also the only team in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy, to win more than 12 games this season while ranking both in the top 50 in experience and bench minutes played. That shows how despite returning 11 of their top 12 scorers, Dayton underwhelmed to the extreme. They advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and were supposed to be the mid-major to watch in 2010.
The good UD team is one where rising sophomore forward Chris Johnson and senior point guard Rob Lowery both make net contributions. The young Johnson still can be inconsistent, but is a crucial factor as the A-10’s most improved player of the year. Lowery, a enigmatic burst off the bench who missed most of last season following a knee injury against Xavier, was the sole reason for a pair of heartbreaking losses this season.
North Carolina (20-16, 5-11 ACC)
Star Player: senior F Deon Thompson (13.7 pts, 6.6 rebs in 26.8 mins)
Sidekick: soph. PG Larry Drew II (8.4 pts, 5.9 asts in 28.6 mins)
Telling Stat: 257th in nation with -1.5/game turnover margin
A Roy Williams team that struggles to score the ball? And that ended the regular season at exactly .500 while finishing near the bottom of an average ACC? Yikes, that’s scary, but that’s exactly what happened to the Tar Heels this season after finishing a year ago as tops in the land. Taking away Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Tyler Hansbrough will do that to any college team…
North Carolina has no playmakers like they did last season and assumed lottery pick Ed Davis has been hurt for the past two months as well. This means that the Tar Heels are utilizing individuals that were or would have simply been role players on an NCAA title team. Thompson is the star while it actually was a difficult task to find their second-most reliable player on the roster.
Dayton is a top ten defensive team, according to the efficiency stats, and that will test the inexperienced turnover tendencies of UNC. The Heels had more turnovers than assists in 12 of their 16 ACC games, and are in the lower half of the NCAA with respect to all efficiency turnover and steal statistics. Their height could be a major factor however as even without Davis, they still have five rotation players standing at least 6’9″.
Prediction: Betting lines are showing Dayton as the two-to-three point favorite in this one. UD is peaking at the right time but so is North Carolina and the big problem with those odds is that close games have been the achilles heel for the Flyers all year. The team is a meager 9-12 in games decided by 10 points or less. I see the Tar Heels escaping at the last minute here despite losing both the rebounding and turnover margins. Dayton will miss some clutch free throws down the stretch and Thompson’s scoring will lead UNC to the championship “upset.” Final Score: North Carolina 71, Dayton 67.
(Photo credit: Dayton Daily News/Lisa Powell and AP/Rogelio V. Solis)