GREENVILLE, S.C. — Most North Carolina opponents recognize the foolishness of trying to run with the Tar Heels and, other than Kentucky, few can keep the pace high and stay with them.
Despite losing decisively twice to that same Kentucky team, Arkansas comes into Sunday’s second-round South Regional game confident that it can play its normal pace and be successful against the No. 1-seed Tar Heels.
“We’re not going to slow down for anybody,” Arkansas guard Daryl Macon said. “We play a fast up-tempo kind of game, so slowing down is going against what we do. They play up tempo too, so it’s just going to come down to stops tomorrow. Who plays the better defense, not the better offense.”
Playing as fast as Kentucky in both meetings this season didn’t work out well for the 26–9 and No. 8-seed Razorbacks, who lost 82–65 and 97–71. Macon predicted that Sunday’s game will be different than the Wildcats’ 103–100 victory against North Carolina in December.
“I watched that game. There was no defense being played at all,” said Macon, who is the Razorbacks’ second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game with a team-leading 77 assists. “That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about that game.”
What did Theo Pinson think of that assessment?
“That’s funny. I’ll remember that one,” Pinson said.
The Razorbacks have a different style than most high-tempo teams, providing many different defensive looks, including the zone. The Tar Heels are familiar with that approach, which Pinson compared to Louisville with one slight difference.
“Louisville doesn’t really press you as much as they would any other team because they know how our break is,” Pinson said. There will be no such hesitation from the Razorbacks and that put a smile on his face.
“It’s going to be fun,” Pinson said. “We hit 92 practices today and we run every practice, so we’ll be ready.”
Macon said that Kentucky is the closest team that Arkansas has faced all season at presenting the sort of problems that the Razorbacks will deal with against UNC.
“Against Kentucky, we kind of lost our composure,” Macon said. “We need to keep our composure tomorrow, stay calm, trust each other, trust the coaching staff. You have to play like it’s your last game.”
UNC coach Roy Williams looks at the expected pace as an opportunity that has to be used wisely.
“We’re good at a fast pace, which is the way we always play,” Williams said. “The difference is if you play and you turn it over, it’s not good. We’ve got to make sure we’re not careless, we’re not casual, we’re not cool. Those three ‘C’ words I don’t like at all. If you’re careless, casual or cool when you’re playing with them, you’re going back home.”
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson seemed to be even less concerned about potential issues with the pace.
“We’re not going to worry about what we do,” Anderson said. “But I’m sure Roy, he’s not going to change. We’re not going to change. I mean, you do what got you here to the dance.”
Two very different descriptions came up frequently from players in describing the pace UNC will likely enjoy Sunday against Arkansas: chaotic and fun.
“I think there is a bit of confidence to that,” Nate Britt said of knowing that the Tar Heels will be able to run. “But, more than anything, I think the guys are looking forward to having a fun atmosphere. That’s how we practice. We practice coming up and down the floor. They trap all over the court, they press. This is how they like to play. But even though they are in the zone, they still like to get out in the passing lanes to get some easy fast-break points.”
Britt provided a boost of offense after UNC got off to a slow start in their 87–78 victory over Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2015.
“I feel like we play that kind of that style in practice every day,” Justin Jackson said. “They like to run, they’re a physical team as well. We have to go out there and match what they bring. Knowing that we’re going to play that fast and knowing that they play kind of the same way we do helps a little bit.”
Joel Berry II turned his right ankle in the Texas Southern game, and playing without him at full strength will obviously make that running game less effective.
“I’d like to play at 100 percent, but more than likely I won’t,” Berry said. “But, hopefully, it will be close to it. I’d say it’s about 75 percent or 80. I’m walking better than yesterday. I did a lot of treatment today. It’s just a little sore. But, overall, I feel pretty good.”
How good Berry feels against Arkansas could have a lot to do with how well the Tar Heels play at the pace that they love.