This is the first in a series of articles discussing how Memphis matches up with the nation’s elite.
Memphis versus North Carolina would be one of the most intriguing matchups in college basketball today. There would be a confluence of so many fascinating subplots.
The two schools have never met on the basketball court. Not even once. Penny Hardaway never stared across mid-court at those legendary powder blue uniforms. Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins never got to mix it up with Andre Turner and Keith Lee.
Roy Williams and John Calipari share a coaching pedigree that goes back to their days as assistant coaches at the University of Kansas. They are the winningest coaches in NCAA history in a number of categories.
It would be the classic case of an ‘irresistible force (Carolina) meeting an immovable object (Memphis)’. The Tar Heels are, according to the Ken Pomeroy Ratings, the most efficient offense in the country, scoring 123.9 points per 100 possessions.
The Tigers are the stingiest defensive unit in the land, giving up only 80.9 per 100 possessions.
Something would have to give.
If the two teams actually meet during the NCAA Tournament, though, the game could come down to the performance of one of the most unlikely players on either roster:
Willie Kemp, junior backup guard for the Memphis Tigers. More on him later.
The starting lineups of Memphis and North Carolina match-up very well.
Memphis is actually a bit taller and longer up front (typical for the Tigers), trotting out 6’10” Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier and 6’6” Antonio Anderson to counter Tyler Hansbrough (6’9”), Deon Thompson (6’8”) and Danny Green (6’6”).
The size advantage in the back court goes to Memphis, too, by a much larger margin this time. 6’6” Tyreke Evans and 6’5” Doneal Mack face off with 5’11” Ty Lawson and 6’4” Wayne Ellington.
The Tigers’ length and defensive intensity could cause the Tar Heels problems, as it has for most all of their opponents this season. Their reputation for pre-eminent defenders depends largely on their size allowing them to disrupt passing lanes.
Enter Ty Lawson.
Some call Lawson the best offensive player in the country. His statistics do not do his role in the UNC offense justice: second on the team in points (15.9 ppg), tops by far in assists (6.5 apg) while contributing 2.8 rebounds per contest.
Looking deeper, Lawson is the most efficient offensive player in college basketball today. This is not just my opinion, by the way. If I were merely going by the so-called “eye test” or reputation, I would most likely select Davidson’s Stephen Curry.
However, according to Dean Oliver’s individual Offensive Rating (which is far too complicated for me to begin to describe, so just trust me), Ty Lawson is the most efficient basketball player in America, with a rating of 134.0 (Hansbrough comes in at no. 19, 126.2; Curry checks in at 119.6 to rank 85th).
UNC has an astounding four players (Lawson, Hansbrough, Green  and Ellington ) in the top-100 of Oliver’s offensive efficiency rating.
Don’t get me wrong; Lawson passes the eye test, too. There are some tremendous penetrators playing Division I basketball, but none quite like Ty Lawson.
Tyreke Evans, the freshman sensation point guard for Memphis, is otherworldly on the drive, but his method is entirely different from Lawson’s. Evans uses his length and power to knife into the lane, which sometimes leaves him susceptible to charging calls. His incredible body control bails him out.
Lawson is more like a smaller (and quicker) version of Derrick Rose: you simply cannot keep a defender in front of him. Any guard marking Lawson must be able to match his quickness, have good hands to harass his dribble and long arms to invade passing lanes.
Memphis has only one guard who meets that description.
It’s not Evans, despite his 16.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 3.7apg. It’s not markedly improved junior guard Mack, either. Even senior defensive stopper Antonio Anderson, he of 210 career steals, cannot be depended upon to reliably stifle cat-quick Lawson.
All year long, small, quick, slippery guards have caused the Tigers fits. That’s where Willie Kemp comes in.
Kemp is 6’2” tall and a sinewy 184 pounds. He’s got long arms (who on the Memphis roster does NOT?) and could pick the pockets of David Copperfield. He has 79 career steals in limited minutes (just 38 career starts in three years, 36 as a freshman).
No one else can come close to keeping in front of Ty Lawson. Kemp has the potential to slow the Tar Heel guard, and perhaps funnel him into the teeth of the long, active Tiger defense.
Perhaps the Tigers’ newly unveiled 3-2 zone, with 6’8” freshman Wesley Witherspoon reaching seemingly from sideline-to-sideline all by himself, will confound Lawson. However, the quicksilver point man has seen just about any zone known to mankind and solved them all.
If Memphis wants to beat UNC, they had better have Kemp in the lineup for around 12-to-15 minutes, and he had better cause Lawson enough grief to disrupt the Tar Heel offense. Grind it out, milk the clock and make Lawson work hard on defense, too.
Otherwise, the Tigers will be in a scoring contest with a team that places all five of its starters in double figures, each above 11 points per game.
That’s not the recipe for a Tiger victory.