3 keys for UNC to smash Saint Peter's Cinderella slipper in Elite 8 showdown
Everyone loves a great Cinderella story.
That’s why it’s so easy to love this plucky 8 seed North Carolina team that … wait, what’s that you say?
There’s a 15 seed in the Elite 8? The biggest Cinderella story in the history of a sporting event romanticized because of Cinderella stories?
Saint Peter’s, the tiny Jesuit college in Jersey City, has stolen the show at this year’s NCAA Tournament, defeating a 1 seed, a 3 seed, and a 31-2 No. 7 seed on its way to Sunday’s East Regional Final. The Peacocks have captured the imagination of the country in the process, an underdog story for the ages that is 1 win from eclipsing all of the NCAA Tournament’s epic underdog stories, from George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006 to Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four in 2018. As if the story needed icing on the cake, Saint Peter’s will now take on blue-blood North Carolina, college basketball royalty, to cement their place in history.
No one outside of North Carolina alumni and perhaps the most bitter Iona fan is going to cheer for the Tar Heels on Sunday afternoon. North Carolina is seeking its 21st Final Four; Saint Peter’s hasn’t even played in 21 NCAA Tournament games. North Carolina has a roster full of 5-star recruits; Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway (the MVP of the 1996 McDonald’s All-America game, which also featured a guy named Kobe Bryant) is the only person associated with Saint Peter’s basketball who knows anything about being a 5-star recruit. North Carolina has a student section in the Dean Dome of 5,000; Saint Peter’s entire enrollment is only 3,000. The game is a true David vs. Goliath story, and the contrasts between the schools and programs would be comical if it weren’t real life. But sometimes sports, like life, is stranger than fiction.
Here are 3 keys to North Carolina extending its record to 21 Final Four trips.
The Tar Heels must establish Armando Bacot inside in the first half
Purdue had a significant frontcourt advantage against the Peacocks but shied away from pounding the basketball inside against Saint Peter’s. That was a mistake, as the Peacocks want to use their ball pressure and the quickness of their guards to extend your offense and make you take 3-point jump shots.
Make no mistake, Saint Peter’s is a legitimately great defensive basketball team. They rank 24th in Adjusted KenPom Defensive Efficiency, an absurdly high number for a school out of the MAAC. The Peacocks switch beautifully on the perimeter, keep things in front of them, and make ball reversals difficult by extending offenses with ball pressure. To negate how they operate defensively on the perimeter, you have to consistently get the ball inside.
Kentucky established Oscar Tshiebwe but couldn’t make the 3s after Saint Peter’s started to help on the Wildcats star, who tallied 30 points in the first-round upset loss. Kentucky shot just 4-of-15 from deep, sealing their fate. Purdue also couldn’t make shots, but they settled for too many long 3-point attempts, hitting only 5-of-21 from downtown.
North Carolina can do establish Armando Bacot because he is a good enough offensive player to be the centerpiece of the game plan. But the Tar Heels have to stick with Bacot throughout — which Kentucky failed to do with Tshiebwe, and once Saint Peter’s helps on Bacot, Carolina must knock down long-range shots.
UNC needs to be patient, limit turnovers and understand that Saint Peter’s is going to control tempo
The Peacocks do not play fast and they use their defense to slow you down and dictate tempo. Much like Virginia, in other words. Of Saint Peter’s first 3 NCAA Tournament games, Kentucky had the highest number of possessions, scoring with transition offense and speeding the Peacocks up at times in the second half. North Carolina should try to replicate that, but not at the cost of being patient in its halfcourt offense.
Saint Peter’s ball pressure makes it tempting to simply launch the first shot you get after an open pass. North Carolina needs to instruct Caleb Love and RJ Davis that at least one ball reversal would be better, especially if the plan is to get the ball as often as possible to Bacot (and Brady Manek) in the post.
Saint Peter’s wants you to settle for quick looks in the halfcourt. They forced Jaden Ivey into 6 turnovers doing that. Purdue, which manhandled UNC in November, had 15 turnovers Friday night. Kentucky was likewise stumped, committing an uncharacteristically high 13 turnovers. The Tar Heels have committed at least 12 turnovers in 8 of their 9 losses this season. Saint Peters has averaged 13.3 turnovers produced per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Something has to give Sunday.
Saint Peter’s baseline out of bounds defense—inbounds defender is responsible for a stunt to take away the near corner that many offenses hunt with BLOB plays. Opponents are 2-15 (0.32 PPP) with 3 turnovers on BLOBS against the Peacocks in the NCAA Tournament. pic.twitter.com/1bz47AZ3xY
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) March 26, 2022
The need for patience offensively extends to baseline out of bounds (BLOB) plays. Teams trying to use their athleticism to generate easy buckets off BLOB actions have failed miserably against Saint Peter’s in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels need to be content to safely inbound the basketball and run their offense.
Make life difficult on Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert, who can hurt you in a variety of ways
Saint Peter’s wasn’t a very good offensive team in the regular season, but coach Shaheen Holloway runs really good offense, whether in flex concepts off hard cuts or in the pick-and-roll, where because of the shooting prowess of Banks, the Peacocks do a great job of lifting the defense and getting good looks off the roll.
Later in the day we get Saint Peter’s running flex offense but it’s all to set up a counter for a wide open three. Nice to see the Peacocks modernize the flex. https://t.co/pXHKCKgylR pic.twitter.com/fktOfwcQDc
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) March 18, 2022
Edert, who is Saint Peter’s 2nd-leading scorer in the NCAA Tournament at 15 points per game and who is shooting 50% from 3 in that span, is particularly adept at getting loose off counter concepts like the one in the video above. After Saint Peter’s torched Kentucky from deep, the Peacocks have come back to earth a bit, connecting on just 9 of their last 34.
To offset that lack of production, the Peacocks have done a fantastic job of spacing the floor and attacking the gaps and the basket, especially through Banks, who is a tremendous driver and finisher.
North Carolina can’t overcommit to perimeter defense. Instead, they need to keep Saint Peter’s in front of them and limit the ability of Banks to influence the game by consistently getting into the paint.
Kentucky, Murray State, and Purdue all failed at this task. North Carolina can’t if it hopes to advance to the Final Four for the 21st time in school history.