Starting 5: What to look out for in Marquette’s NCAA first round mathchup

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Marquette men’s basketball in its open practice at Dickie’s Arena ahead of its first round matchup against the University of North Carolina March 17 in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.)

FORT WORTH — Marquette men’s basketball’s road to the Final Four in New Orleans is set to begin in less than 24 hours when the Golden Eagles take on North Carolina at 3:30 p.m. CST at Dickies Arena.

Here are five things to look out for in Thursday’s first-round matchup:

Win Through Defense 

Marquette head coach Shaka Smart has made his name in college basketball around his “havoc” style of defense. Amongst all 15 ACC teams, North Carolina ranked 14th in turnovers per game at 11.7 which can be an area that the Golden Eagles can take advantage of to pull out the upset.

“A huge part is taking care of the basketball,” North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said. “Marquette even in the half court does a really good job of getting steals and deflections.”

In 31 games this season, the Golden Eagles have averaged 29.5 deflections per game while meeting or surpassing its goal of 32 in 12 instances. In those 12 games, Marquette is 11-1.

“Something that I put on the practice plan every day is making the easy play and limiting turnovers. If we get shots, I feel confident with the type of shooters that will make the shots,” Davis said. “If we miss, we’re really good on the offensive glass and that allows us to get second chance opportunities.”

Rebound Battle

Marquette’s size does not fare well in Thursday’s game when playing against a program such as North Carolina. The Golden Eagles rank 211th in the nation in total rebounds per game at 37.1 while the Tar Heels sit at 18th with 39.8 per game.

Armando Bacot leads the charge in the Tar Heels inside presence underneath the basket, making him one of the more intriguing and important matchups for the Golden Eagles. The All-ACC First Team selection is third in the nation in total rebounds at 412 and counting on the season.

“They’re obviously an undersized team, but, also they’re not really good on the boards too,” Bacot said. “Hopefully that’s something that we can take advantage of. We know they’ll probably send double-teams and stuff like that, but I just got to be able to make the right plays and we got to knock down shots.”

Coaching Matchup

Both head coaches will be bringing their respective programs to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Shaka Smart will be coaching in his ninth overall NCAA Tournament while Davis will be coaching in his first after taking over for Roy Williams after serving as an assistant coach the past nine seasons for UNC.

Smart is 3-0 against North Carolina in his career, earning all three in his previous stop at Texas.

“All those games were different,” Smart said. “I think that one of the biggest keys in all those games was just resilience, continuing to fight and battle when things go your way and when things don’t go your way.”

If the Golden Eagles are to control the game at their wanted pace, fight for rebounds and compete for a complete 40 minutes there is a chance Smart improves to 4-0 against the Tar Heels.

“At the end of the day, these games are dictated by the guys that are out there making the most plays and the guys that are playing with the most confidence,” Smart said. “I just want to help our guys the best I can, be themselves, enjoy the heck out of the opportunity and go after it.”

Handling Leaky Black

Another intriguing matchup for Marquette is North Carolina 6-foot-8 forward Leaky Black.

“Leaky has been playing unbelievable on defense,” Tar Heel forward Brady Manek said. “He’s been guarding some of the best players, some of the leading scorers throughout the ACC and throughout the NCAA.”

Whether it be guarding Justin Lewis or Darryl Morsell, Marquette will have a hard time generating offense Thursday. Lewis leads the Golden Eagles in scoring with 17.1 points per game while Morsell sits second at 13.5.

“That’s a major luxury,” Davis said. “One of the things I wish I could do is slice him in half in pieces so that I can have him guard multiple players. But I’m just so proud of Leaky. He’s had a terrific season and not just defensively but, he has the best assist to turnover ratio on our team. He’s the guy that can distribute the basketball and also take care of it.”

Past History 

After being on the same team for the previous three seasons at Oklahoma, Kur Kuath and Manek will face each other in the Big Dance after transferring to Marquette and North Carolina respectively over the offseason.

Manek is the Tar Heels best 3-pointer shooter at 38.6% while Kuath is the Golden Eagles best shot blocker with 2.5 blocks per game.

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.