In their only previous meeting, the Tar Heels beat Wisconsin 88-82 in the 2005 NCAA East Regional Final en route to Roy Williams' first championship
Tonight, No. 5 North Carolina hosts No. 7/9 Wisconsin in a prime-time showdown featuring two of the nation's elite point guards, Kendall Marshall and Jordan Taylor.
This game is more than just a clinic in point guard pageantry, however.
Also on display tonight will be a clash between two diametrically-opposed offensive styles, as an unstoppable force (the Tar Heels) meets an immovable object (the Badgers).
Coach Roy Williams will encourage his pass-first, -second and -always playmaker Marshall to return the high-scoring Tar Heels to form (they're currently fifth in the country with 88.0 pts/gm). Meanwhile, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan and his sharp-shooting guard Taylor (45 percent shooting from three-point range this season) will attempt to grind the game to a crawl and keep the scoring total as low as possible.
Both teams have been successful imposing their style of play on their opponents this season. So which approach will win out tonight?
Kendall Marshall is second in the nation with 10.8 assists per game
Per KenPom.com, Wisconsin (fifth with 117.0) and Carolina (ninth with 115.4) both rank in the top-ten in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. Adjusted offensive efficiency measures how effective a team is with the possessions it gets, regardless of the tempo of the game.
These numbers indicate that if Wisconsin and UNC each got, for example, 100 possessions in tonight's game (which would suit Roy Williams right down to the ground), Wisconsin would win by 1.6 points. With a sample size of only six games to work with, this is as even a comparison as you'll find.
With two stellar point guards protecting the ball and facilitating the offense, both teams score at an elite level.
Wisconsin leads the nation in scoring defense and 90's haircuts
It should come as no surprise that two teams ranked in the top 10 overall are also among the best in the nation on the defensive side of the ball.
Led by reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson (3.0 blocks per game, 14th in the nation), the Tar Heels have developed into an intimidating defensive unit. They rank 11th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings at 88.6 (points allowed per 100 possessions).
The Badgers, though, have long since staked their claim as a perennial defensive powerhouse, currently ranking second at 83.5.
But that number doesn't tell the whole story.
Through six games, the Badgers are allowing just 39 points a game. No, you didn't read that wrong.
Coach Williams was quick to praise their defensive prowess: "The most impressive thing to me is not the 39 points per game. The most impressive thing to me is holding teams to 30.5 percent from the field. That is mind-boggling to me, to be honest with you."
Dexter Strickland, literally running up the back of Tennessee State's Will Peters during the Tar Heels' blowout win
With offensive and defensive efficiency basically a push for the two teams, the primary difference between North Carolina and Wisconsin comes down to the pace of their play.
Bo Ryan's Badgers aim to minimize the number of possessions in each game, which, in combination with their ferocious defense, provides few opportunities for their opponents to put up points. Wisconsin, with 58.9 possessions per game, ranks dead last in the country (or, as Ryan would probably put it, first).
The Tar Heels, well-known run-and-gunners, have won two national titles under Roy Williams by running up the backs of their opponents on the way to the basket. Off a make or a miss, the Heels are a threat to score within seconds of getting the basketball.
Only four teams in the country average more possessions per game than North Carolina and none of them rank in the top 60 in offensive efficiency or the top 200 in defensive efficiency. No squad is better at running teams out of the gym.
Ol' Roy's will have plenty to smile about tonight
Both teams are very effective on both ends of the floor—within their own systems. The winner of this game will be the team who gets to play its brand of basketball.
While Wisconsin has been successful in limiting the opportunities of their opponents so far, they will fail to slow the Tar Heels tonight.
Kendall Marshall, despite his noted lack of foot speed or elite ball handling, is tailor-made to defeat a defense like Wisconsin's. Whether they use traps, full-court pressure, or double-teams, Wisconsin will not be able to contain Marshall, since he attacks using the pass rather than the dribble.
Try as the Badgers might to defend in transition, it is nearly impossible to prevent the Tar Heels from running the floor and making easy baskets.
History would indicate it's easier to speed up a game than slow it down: In the team's only prior meeting, Carolina beat Wisconsin 88-82 on the way to winning the 2005 NCAA National Championship.
As UNLV recently proved, the way to beat the Tar Heels is to score in bunches, something Wisconsin is not comfortable doing. The Badgers will go home empty-handed tonight.