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Big vs. bigger: A Marquette assistant coach breaks down the matchup between the Badgers and North Carolina men's basketball teams
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Big vs. bigger: A Marquette assistant coach breaks down the matchup between the Badgers and North Carolina men's basketball teams

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Brooks North Carolina

Garrison Brooks, the lone senior in North Carolina's starting lineup, dunks during an 83-70 loss to Marquette on Feb. 24. 

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Jake Presutti had a front-row seat to see the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team early in the 2020-21 campaign. He also had one to watch North Carolina later in the season.

When the NCAA tournament bracket was announced and the Badgers (17-12) and Tar Heels (18-10) were matched up in a first-round game in the South region, the Marquette assistant coach was naturally drawn to the intrigue of a matchup that will take place Friday night at Mackey Arena.

“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Presutti said, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach Greg Gard speaks to the media Tuesday ahead of the ninth-seeded Badgers' matchup with the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament Friday night at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Presutti and the Golden Eagles will be watching from home after going 13-14 this season. But two of Marquette’s best wins came against the teams playing in a game that intrigues Presutti as much as any other in the first round.

Marquette beat UW 67-65 on Dec. 4 on a tip-in by freshman forward Justin Lewis at the buzzer. The Golden Eagles traveled to North Carolina in a hastily arranged non-conference game late in the season and beat the Tar Heels 83-70 on Feb. 24.

When Presutti looks at the UW-North Carolina pairing, a couple things jumped out immediately.

One was the difference in experience. The Badgers have six seniors in their eight-man rotation, returning nearly every key player from a team that went 21-10 last season and earned a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

North Carolina, on the other hand, has six freshmen in its 10-man rotation. The Tar Heels are the least-experienced team in the NCAA tournament field, according to KenPom.

There’s also the name-recognition aspect to this matchup. North Carolina is one of the blue-blood programs in college basketball, while UW is in elite company after making 20 of the past 21 NCAA tournaments.

“Two great programs,” Presutti said.

Finally, there’s this: UW was among the biggest lineups Marquette had to prepare for this season — the Badgers were starting both Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers at the time — and North Carolina is even bigger.

“Having played them both,” Presutti said, “they’re both huge.”

Glass cleaners

Presutti agreed that any breakdown of the UW-North Carolina matchup has to start with rebounding, namely the difficulty of keeping the Tar Heels off the offensive glass.

Marquette allowed 13 offensive boards in its win over North Carolina and, while that sounds like a big number, the Golden Eagles coaching staff considered it a success because they’d held the Tar Heels under their season average. North Carolina averages 15.9 offensive rebounds per game, which would be a program record.

University of Wisconsin senior Micah Potter speaks to the media Tuesday ahead of the ninth-seeded Badgers' matchup with the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament Friday night at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. 

The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, collecting 41.3% of their misses. This is nothing new for a program that has finished top 10 in that category in nine of Roy Williams’ 18 seasons at North Carolina, and lower than No. 21 only once.

“I’ve said for a million years guys that the most significant thing in the game, statistically, is rebounding,” Williams said this week. “You get the ball, then I get the ball, you get the ball, I get the ball, and the only way to break that cycle is for me to get an offensive rebound, which gives me (an extended) possession. And if we can stop you from getting that, then we’re way ahead in the game.”

Second-chance points accounted for 62 of North Carolina’s 248 points — exactly 25% — in three ACC tournament games last week.

The Tar Heels had 25 offensive rebounds leading to 27 second-chance points against Notre Dame; 15 offensive rebounds leading to 17 second-chance points against Virginia Tech; and 21 offensive rebounds leading to 18 second-chance points against Florida State.

Sophomore forward Armando Bacot finished with 18 offensive rebounds in those three games, while Day’Ron Sharpe had 12.

“We knew we had to get into their bodies, we had to drive them back because they’re so good at that second shot and specifically just around the rim,” Presutti said. “You do a good job (defensively), the guy drives and misses a floater, but then they just tap it in. Those are huge plays. It was an incredible focus for us, making sure that all five guys were rebounding and we were limiting them to one shot.

“I can’t stress enough how big of a deal that is for them. They have great size and those guys they do a great job — even if you’re boxing them out — of just wedging you under the basket and using their length.”

UW ranked middle of the pack this season in defensive rebounding percentage (74.7), but there were multiple instances of how not being sound in that area cost the Badgers in games against high-level competition.

Illinois produced 15 second-chance points off 11 offensive rebounds in a 75-60 win over visiting UW on Feb. 6.

Michigan turned four offensive boards by freshman center Hunter Dickinson into nine second-chance points over the final 6 minutes, 28 seconds of the Wolverines’ 67-59 win over the Badgers on Feb. 14.

Purdue finished in double digits in both offensive rebounds (11) and second-chance points (13) in a 73-69 win over UW earlier this month.

Iowa didn’t put massive numbers in those categories, but its size and length gave UW fits on the glass at times.

Potter and Reuvers haven’t started together since a loss at Michigan on Jan. 12, but UW coach Greg Gard acknowledged he may use that pairing against a North Carolina lineup that includes four players who are 6-foot-10 or taller.

“We’ve got to make sure it’s a big area that we focus on,” Potter said of keeping North Carolina off the offensive glass. “Because if you take that away, you’ve give yourself a good chance to win the game.”

Tough call

Presutti believes it’s possible for an opponent to use North Carolina’s size against it.

One X-factor he listed for UW was sophomore forward Tyler Wahl, who could use his craftiness and quickness to his advantage against bigger players. Presutti also believes UW’s perimeter shooters will get good looks.

“What we tried to do was get those bigs moving, get those bigs in the ball screens and then try to get downhill because then they wanted to protect the paint, so they would converge and we were driving and kicking,” he said. “In our game, our guys did a great job driving and kicking and we made shots. What I could see is (UW) getting open shots and you’re going to have success if you drive and kick and those guys get open shots and knock them down.”

UW has a major experience advantage in the backcourt, and Presutti said it’s important to not let the Tar Heels freshman guard tandem of Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton build any confidence.

“That was our emphasis with them was don’t allow them anything easy because in a game vs. Duke, Love got a couple layups and then all of a sudden he hit (four) 3s,” Presutti said. “And Kerwin Walton, in their actions, he’s looking to shoot every time and every time he gets a shot it looks like it’s going in. It was really important that we did a good job with them on every possession.”

Who does Presutti believe will win between UW and North Carolina? He declined to say, though the Marquette assistant did make a prediction of sorts for what could come next for the winner.

“I just think it’s such a great first-round matchup and no disrespect to Baylor, I truly believe that the winner of the game can beat Baylor,” he said. “I really believe that. And Baylor’s a great team, but I think that really says how good these two programs are in Wisconsin and North Carolina.”

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