UNC vs. Wisconsin: Three things to watch

Kennedy Meeks and the UNC front court has been difficult to stop in the early season -- but how will it fare on Wednesday against Wisconsin?
Kennedy Meeks and the UNC front court has been difficult to stop in the early season -- but how will it fare on Wednesday against Wisconsin? rwillett@newsobserver.com

And welcome to Maui. As I look out over my laptop screen in front of me, I see more than a dozen palm trees, some colorful beach umbrellas, the sand, the Pacific Ocean and, in the distance, the island of Lanai. So not bad.

And oh, yes … where was I …

Ah, that's right: North Carolina against Wisconsin coming up later on Wednesday in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. The Tar Heels, whose 17 victories here are the most by any team ever in the Maui Invitational, are seeking their fourth Maui Invitational championship, and first since 2008.

Three things to watch:

1. The pace.

There's perhaps no simpler way to put it than this: The Tar Heels have been an unstoppable offensive juggernaut during their first six games. In five of them, they've scored at least 93 points. They scored more than 100 in both of their past two games here: 104 against Chaminade and 107 on Tuesday night against Oklahoma State. Now the question is how the Tar Heels will fare against a slow-it-down, deliberate team that likes to control the clock. A team like, say … Wisconsin. Don't let their pace fool you, though: the Badgers are an excellent offensive team. But they rank 348th nationally in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com, and they play the exact opposite style that UNC prefers. So which team does the better job forcing the other to adjust, and play at an uncomfortable pace?

2. Defending Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes.

Remember them? You should. Koenig and Hayes are seniors now. Two years ago, they played important roles as sophomores on a Wisconsin team that defeated UNC in a West Regional semifinal. The defeat ended the Tar Heels' season. The Badgers went on to play in the national championship game, where they lost against Duke. Two years later, Koenig and Hayes comprise the engine that drives Wisconsin. Whatever success, or failure, the Badgers have this season, those two are likely going to be most responsible for it. They are Wisconsin's two best players, and they wll pose plenty of challenges for UNC defensively. Hayes, the 6-foot-8 wing forward, is the more difficult matchup given his versatility. The Justin Jackson-Hayes matchup is likely to be the game’s most important.

3. How well the Tar Heels match Wisconsin on the inside, especially in offensive rebounding.

Wisconsin doesn't lack for size, overall. Five players in Wisconsin's rotation are at least 6-foot-8. The Tar Heels have more size in the front court, though, and Wisconsin doesn't have the overall height to match up with Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley, both 6-foot-10, or the 6-foot-9 Isaiah Hicks. Meeks, Hicks and Bradley are all off to strong starts this season, but they'll face their most significant challenge of the season on Wednesay. UNC ranks second nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Wisconsin isn't too far behind, at No. 4. In a close game, and this one looks like it could be close, and probably should be, the importance of second-chance opportunities become magnified. Can UNC take advantage of its size and limit the Badgers' second chances?

See you at the Lahaina Civic Center.