"Who's Wofford?" was a common question among Arkansas players when they found out their second round draw, but North Carolina, tonight's opponent, offers a bit more familiarity.
Head coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels, who upset Virginia and made a run to the ACC tournament finals before falling to Notre Dame 90-82, will look to better their 2-2 NCAA Tournament record against Arkansas in Jacksonville.
The West region’s 4-seed escaped its second round game against 13-seed Harvard 67-65 Thursday to set up a matchup with the Razorbacks. It will be the first meeting between the programs since the Tar Heels’ 108-77 win in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
The 2007-08 Tar Heels lineup featured four future NBA players – Danny Green (San Antonio), Ty Lawson (Denver), Wayne Ellington (LA Lakers) and Tyler Hansbrough (Toronto). Arkansas had two – Sonny Weems (Denver and Toronto) and Patrick Beverley (Houston).
Seven years later, the rosters are a bit more evenly matched, and the Razorbacks feel they match up with UNC better than a guard-oriented Wofford club.
The Terriers, who didn’t start a player over 6-foot-6 Thursday, controlled tempo for a majority of the game and allowed the Razorbacks few transition chances. Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis combined for 35 points, but Arkansas would still like to have the tempo in its favor.
"I feel like with us playing UNC, it will benefit us better because Wofford has four or five guards in at a time," Bobby Portis said. "I think that kind of hurt us a lot just because they had four or five ball handlers in. I think with us playing UNC it will benefit us."
Wofford and North Carolina offer Arkansas two contrasting styles, with the Terriers slowing tempo as a smaller team, while the Tar Heels like to run the floor and control the glass with superior height and athleticism.
Williams’ club is led by point guard Marcus Paige, who heads an offense averaging 78 points per contest (17th in the nation) and big men Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson. The two bigs combine for more than 15 rebounds per game on the nation’s second-best rebounding team (41 rebounds per game).
And if the Razorbacks have one Achilles heel, it’s rebounding. Arkansas was outrebounded by a much smaller Wofford club 37-35, and 14-8 on the offensive glass.
But if North Carolina has a weakness, at times, it’s valuing the basketball. The Tar Heels were forced into 17 turnovers against Harvard Thursday, which Arkansas players say can be partly contributed to first game jitters.
"I feel like with North Carolina, they try to speed the game up like we do, so it's going to be a fast-paced game," Portis said. "And also I think that was their first game [Thursday], too, so I feel like they had some of the same jitters that we had, also, so that could have caused some of the 17 turnovers."
UNC averages nearly 13 turnovers per game this season, which Arkansas has to like, while forcing opponents into 12 per contest. Turning over the Tar Heels and limiting Paige’s playmaking ability (173 assists this season) will go a long way in deciding who moves on to the Sweet 16.
And on top of the 17 turnovers, the Crimson outscored UNC 27-6 in point off turnovers Thursday.
"That’s what we like to do, make people turn the ball over and that’s how we get the majority of our offense," Ky Madden said. "If they have 17 turnovers then we should have a pretty good game."
Head coach Mike Anderson also has some familiarity with North Carolina, both as a player and an assistant under Nolan Richardson at Tulsa. Anderson scored four points and grabbed one rebound in a 78-70 loss to Michael Jordan and the Tar Heels during the 1981 season.
As a volunteer assistant, Anderson coached under Richardson in a win over UNC in the All Capital Classic in Tulsa, and again as an Arkansas assistant in the 1995 national semifinals against a club that featured NBA players Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.
"Now, we're in the NCAA Tournament again, so it's an opportunity for us to play against a historic program," Anderson said. "So it's a great opportunity for us to play against an outstanding program. And we've got some tradition at Arkansas, as well. It's going to be Arkansas versus North Carolina to vie for a Sweet 16 berth. It's an opportunity. It's a great challenge there."
Tempo-wise, Saturday’s matchup will present the SEC and ACC’s top offenses, but the Razorbacks must be wary of UNC’s presence on the glass. The Tar Heels average nearly 38 points per game in the paint, the best among major conference schools.
"I’m more excited to be just in this round," Michael Qualls said. "Every game that we win, every game -- that's life. We're still going. It's win and survive. No matter who we play, we're going to have to step up and play to the occasion if we want to stay here."