Commentary

UConn, UNC flex need for speed

Huskies host Heels on Saturday in what has become an annual track meet in high tops

Originally Published: January 8, 2010
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- North Carolina might be the school at which former men's coach Dean Smith made the four corners offense famous, but longtime women's coach Sylvia Hatchell has always preached a basketball philosophy more akin to the four banked turns at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

[+] EnlargeTiffany Hayes
AP Photo/Bob ChildUConn's Tiffany Hayes, who suffered a sprained left ankle in a win Thursday, is questionable for Saturday's date with UNC.

Put the pedal to the floor and hope the tires don't blow out before you cross the finish line.

So when No. 1 Connecticut and No. 7 North Carolina, the nation's two highest-scoring teams not coached by Paul Westhead, meet Saturday at the XL Center, there is about as much chance of the Tar Heels slowing down as there is of Hatchell dropping her distinctive Southern drawl for the dialect of a Cape Cod lifer.

"I don't think anybody's expecting us to beat them, except maybe us," Hatchell said in her news conference after Wednesday's 89-78 win against Georgia Tech. "We're going to go up there and play like we've been playing. And I'm going to probably substitute a whole lot, and let those kids play and just tell them, 'Leave it all out there on that court.'"

The problem for any team trying to run against Connecticut is that what's often left on the court looks like debris strewn across asphalt from a stock car clipping the wall at 200 mph.

But not always. There is no video game cheat for beating the nation's No. 1 team. And no team has quite figured out how to do it against this particular iteration. But look at the teams that have most "recently" beaten Geno Auriemma's team -- Rutgers and Stanford in the 2007-08 season -- and the common denominator between disparate styles is the commitment to whatever the style is.

Three years ago, North Carolina beat Connecticut 82-76 in Hartford, the last time any team beat the Huskies at either of their home venues in the regular season. The Tar Heels earned that win in typical fashion for them, playing fast (attempting 63 field goals and 29 free throws) and loose (26 turnovers) with the ball, but doing both with the comfort of a team familiar with that plan.

For Hatchell, happiness during a game is directly proportional to the shots taken.

"Every time we've played them, for the most part, since I've been here, you know you have to be able to defend them in transition," Auriemma said. "They're probably as quick as any team in America in the backcourt. That's a challenge that very few teams pose. Yeah, we're the kind of team that likes to run up and down and score, but with Carolina, you have to run back and defend, too."

The Tar Heels will run on made baskets, missed baskets and, if the referees would allow it, on fan baskets in time-out contests. But the next best thing to a turnover in sparking transition is a rebound and a quick outlet. Not surprisingly, they also owned the glass in that win three years ago, racking up a 46-32 edge on rebounds and an 18-11 edge on second-chance points.

Look at North Carolina's most successful seasons in the past decade and one of two things was true in each case. Either the Tar Heels finished with an assist-to-turnover ratio about even or, more often, they owned close to a double-digit edge in rebounding average. Neither was true last season; they finished with more than 100 more turnovers than assists and one of their worst rebounding margins, albeit still in positive territory, in the program's recent memory.

[+] EnlargeCetera DeGraffenreid
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeAlthough the schedule could be tougher, UNC (13-1) and Cetera DeGraffenreid have won eight straight games.

And as Richmond coach Michael Shafer noted after his team dropped an 86-37 decision to the Huskies earlier this season, there's nothing quite like playing Connecticut to find out what your flaws are. When Hatchell's team faced the Huskies in Chapel Hill last season, the Tar Heels watched as the visitors outrebounded them 53-32 and felt so at ease as to commit just 13 turnovers.

Fast-forward to the present and Saturday should reveal just how far North Carolina has come. The early numbers are there, particularly in rebounding, but those totals have come against a home-loaded schedule short on national contenders. The toughest game North Carolina has played, given both venue and opponent, was at Michigan State -- a 72-66 loss.

It doesn't help that North Carolina definitely will be without one key piece in Jessica Breland, out all season as she battles back from cancer, and might well be without another in freshman guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a disruptive defensive force and excellent rebounder, after she suffered a dislocated shoulder earlier this month against Winston-Salem State (at least sophomore center Chay Shegog has returned from a concussion).

The Tar Heels do still have the backcourt to which Auriemma alluded, one better than any the Huskies have faced thus far, including against Stanford. Between them, Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid average 32.7 points and 9.1 assists per game, and do it in efficient fashion in such a frenetic system.

Those two might also have caught a break when Connecticut's Tiffany Hayes suffered a sprained left ankle early in the first half of Thursday's win against Cincinnati. A tough matchup for either of the smaller Tar Heels, Hayes' availability was unclear as of Thursday night, with Auriemma saying only that the ankle looked "pretty swollen" and that she would undergo treatment in hopes of practicing and playing.

If Hayes is at less than full strength, it leaves the Huskies distinctly short-handed for what is annually a track meet in high-tops, even if Lorin Dixon reprises her starring role in last season's game.

"If Tiffany can't run up and down real fast, I might hold the ball," Auriemma joked.

That's not going to happen, but playing without Hayes against Cincinnati did offer a glimpse at how fragile Connecticut's seemingly vise-like hold on perfection is (in a 22-point win, it must be said). Unhappy with how his starters came out of the locker room in the second half, the coach pulled all five at the same time in the first media timeout. The lead never slipped below 16 points and eventually ballooned back out to normal margins, but you had to wonder whether part of Auriemma's visible frustration was pre-emptive -- he could get away with playing the second unit against Cincinnati. It might not cut it against North Carolina. He needs the core of his rotation dialed in.

"The bigness of that game will kind of get them in the right frame of mind -- because it's Carolina," Auriemma said.

And if you're going to beat the Huskies, you'd better have an identity and you'd better execute it flawlessly. Nobody ever doubts that North Carolina has the former.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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