More Sports:

April 03, 2016

Standing between 'Nova and national title is UNC's offensive rebounding

HOUSTON – When the point was brought up to his coach, over to the side Daniel Ochefu could only shake his head (SMDH, in the parlance of our times). Villanova’s demolition of Oklahoma in the Final Four was just about as impressive as it gets, but it also wasn’t a perfect performance.

The Wildcats were beaten soundly on the defensive glass, as the Sooners rebounded 19 of their 41 missed shots (46.3 percent), an unacceptable number on most nights. Since they were lights out in literally every other aspect of the game, it was just a minor blip. But knowing full well about the team standing between ‘Nova and a national title, Ochefu didn’t mince words.

“We have to do an extremely better job [than last night], myself first and foremost,” Ochefu would later say.

North Carolina is a two-point favorite in the national title game and from here, that number seems about right. It probably should be a pick ’em, but Vegas’ number is close enough. This will be a matchup of the top two offenses in the country, but the teams score in vastly different ways.

UNC’s not-so-small advantage is its elite offensive rebounding. Here is how the battle of the boards shakes out in the title game, with the national rank out of 351 teams in parentheses. One of these numbers sticks out, and the ‘Nova players and coaches are well aware of it.

  Off. Reb %Def. Reb %
 28.6 (209)71.0 (104)
UNC40.6 (3)
69.8 (196)

“It's not just length and athleticism, it's scheme,” Jay Wright said of UNC’s work on the offensive glass. “They have those guys around the basket. It's desire.”

The length and athleticism doesn’t hurt, though. 6’10” Brice Johnson, 6’10” Kennedy Meeks, and 6’9” Isaiah Hicks all crash the glass. And then if you’ve somehow successfully accounted for the bigs, 6’6” Theo Pinson and 6’8” Justin Jackson are coming down hard and attacking the rim from the wings.

UNC is fresh off flexing its rebounding muscles in the second national semifinal against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. In the 83-66 win, the Tar Heels rebounded over half of their misses. With that many second chances, their margin for error isn’t exactly razor-thin.

The burning question for Monday night is a simple one: Can the Wildcats compete or at least survive on the glass? Oklahoma had some success taking advantage of Villanova’s switching defense on Saturday night (smalls having trouble boxing out bigs), a problem that certainly won’t go away against UNC.

With most teams, ‘Nova can live with Ryan Arcidiacono guarding a forward on a switch. Against someone like Johnson, that becomes a very dicey proposition.

“With North Carolina, I think it’s how do you end possessions matched up to a man, which requires great communication,” Villanova associate head coach Baker Dunleavy said. “We’ll go out there today and practice and try to walk through some our stuff and make sure we know how to communicate through it.”

The one sentiment the Wildcats seemed to share is that it will take a team effort to combat the Tar Heels. They’re the better defensive rebounding team in this game, but it will take more than Ochefu cleaning the glass to win a second national title.

“Tomorrow is definitely going to be a team effort just because I might be boxing out their biggest guy, but their second biggest guy is as big as me,” Ochefu said. “Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, and all our guards are going to be getting in there, getting physicial, getting tough, and grabbing rebounds.”

“I definitely take it personally,” Hart said of that challenge. “We’re not the biggest team, we don’t have a bunch of 6-10s and 6-11s out there. It’s just something I grew up doing, it goes into working hard.”

“Defend and rebound” is up on the wall of Villanova’s practice gym. Like most college programs, they place an emphasis on it. And as much as we talk about scheme, much of the Wildcats’ success on the glass will simply come down to their desire. Can they out-tough UNC?

“It’s going to come down to a lot of toughness, 'want-to,' and pursuing the ball,” Dunleavy said. “Rebounding is something that is pretty straightforward. We got to want to go get them, and they’re big, athletic, and play really hard.”

Making the national title game is a tremendous accomplishment, but in this case, the last step will almost certainly be the toughest for ‘Nova (Kansas is right up there, too). The Wildcats know the gargantuan task ahead of them, but they’re confident that they can take it on.

“We have to rebound probably better this game than in every other game that we’ve had,” Jenkins said. “But we’ll be ready for it.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann