Tar Heels facing ‘tall’ task in second round against Texas A&M

UNC's small lineup has had success against bigger opponents, but the Aggies will be the tallest it has faced this year

Luke Maye (32) and Kenny Williams defend Lipscomb's Garrison Matthews Friday. UNC's inside defenders will have a tougher time against bigger Texas A&M on Sunday. (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — The North Carolina basketball team has played and beaten some big teams this season.

Including Duke, twice.


But the second-seeded Tar Heels have yet to face a task as tall as the one they’ll be up against on Sunday in their second round NCAA West Region matchup against No. 7 Texas A&M at Spectrum Center.

The Aggies (21-12) feature a front line consisting of 6-foot-10, 264-pound junior Tyler Davis, 6-10, 241-pound sophomore Robert Williams and 6-9, 220-pound junior D.J. Hogg, all three of whom stand head-and-shoulders above everyone in UNC’s preferred small starting lineup.

“Their size is impressive,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said Saturday. “I just did an interview with (former Georgetown coach John Thompson) and he said it may be the biggest team he’s ever seen. Their perimeter guys have a lot of size, too.”

Williams said he didn’t get much sleep Friday night following his team’s opening round win against Lipscomb, thinking about what he saw from the Aggies while scouting them on video.

While that’s probably an exaggeration intended to play games with an opponent’s mind, UNC (26-10) does have reason to be concerned about Texas A&M’s strength inside.

Davis and Williams combined for 27 points and 19 rebounds in Friday’s first-round 73-69 victory against Providence. Williams, in particular, made an impression on the Tar Heels as they watched from the wings waiting for their turn to play.

“When we were watching, the next thing you see was him rising out of nowhere and windmilling it,” senior guard Joel Berry said. “It’s pretty special. He’s an athletic player and we’re going to do our best to try to contain him.”

It’s a strategy that worked against Duke’s freshman duo of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in last week’s ACC tournament semifinal victory in Brooklyn.

Six-foot-8 forward Luke Maye and 6-6 wing Theo Pinson did their best to stay in front of their bigger opponents and deny entry passes into the low post. When the ball did get inside, the Tar Heels guards helped out by getting as many hands in the way as possible in an attempt to force turnovers or at least make the bigs redistribute back out to the perimeter.

That sounds easy enough. But as Pinson pointed out, the difference between defending Duke and Texas A&M is that the Aggies’ bigs are more experienced and solidly built than those of the Blue Devils.

“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to keep a body on them at all times and see what happens,” Pinson said. “(Williams and Davis are) bigger, stronger and have been in college and knows how to play. It’s going to be a tough matchup for me, but I’m going to be ready.”

He’s not the only one, though.

Even if Pinson and Maye are able to defend the low post without getting into foul trouble, UNC’s own tandem of freshmen big men figure to be asked to make a major contribution.

Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley have made noticeable strides in recent weeks, and their playing time has increased because of it. Friday against Lipscomb they even went stretches in which they were on the court at the same time while combining for 13 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and a block.

Manley had 10 of the rebounds by himself in just 10 minutes of action. The more solidly built Brooks had all three assists and did a better job defensively in his 16 minutes.

According to Williams, how they do in the game will predicate much time they spend on the court against the Aggies.

“What I do is I put (them) in and whoever plays the best the first time, they get more time,” the UNC coach said. “It’s a go-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of thing.”

If there’s one thing the Tar Heels have going for them because of the size disparity in their lineup, it’s that A&M will have to find a way to defend them, too.

That not something either Davis or Williams is looking forward to.

“I feel like we always have the advantage inside, but their bigs are really talented,” Davis said.

“Carolina is a different matchup,” Williams added. “Their bigs, one through five, shoot. It’s going to be a difficult task for us. But our coaches are putting together a good game plan and hope we’ll beat them.”

According to Manley, UNC’s game plan is simple.

“Just play with energy and effort,” he said. “Those guys may be more gifted athletically. We just have to outwork them a little bit.”