What to do against Bobby Portis? And how to defend him? That was one of the most important questions for North Carolina when it put together its game plan for Arkansas, the Tar Heels' opponent on Saturday in the NCAA tournament.
A victory would send UNC to a regional semifinal for the first time since 2012. A loss would send the Tar Heels home, their season over. How they defend Portis, the SEC Player of the Year, could go a long way toward deciding where the Tar Heels spend most of next week.
Portis isn't your typical 6-foot-11 big man. He's about 240 pounds and can create scoring chances down low and step outside and make a 3-pointer. He doesn't attempt a lot of 3s – he's made at least one in 10 games this season – but when he does shoot from the outside he’s made a good percentage (46.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, to be exact).
Portis can shoot. He can pass effectively from the post. He's a scorer. Portis has scored at least 21 points in 13 games this season. Is he like anyone UNC has faced this season? Is he comparable to any big man the Tar Heels have defended?
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“Not that I can think of,” said Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels' sophomore forward. “If I'm missing somebody, I'm sorry, but he's a different type of player.”
Portis is unlike Duke's Jahlil Okafor. He doesn't really compare to Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas.
Strangely enough, the list at kenpom.com of the five players most comparable to Portis includes UNC's Brice Johnson and Meeks. Though neither of them can shoot as well from the outside as Portis. And neither of them mean as much to UNC's offense as Portis means to Arkansas's.
When we spoke with UNC players on Friday they hadn't yet had a lot of time to study Portis. Johnson knew enough alread, though.
“He can really pass it out of the post,” he said. “He has great footwork down low. He's a very talented big guy.”
Portis' passing ability came up again and again in interviews. Johnson talked about it. So did Meeks. So did Joel James, the reserve junior forward who could find himself, at times, defending Portis on Saturday night.
“I try to memorize the scouting report early in advance,” James said. “He's a great passer, great offensive rebounder. You've got to box him out. He's physical, 6-11, can jump. Real strong.
“But if you honestly just play him strong, limit him to one try, don't get intimidated by his game, you should be all right.”
That’s the hope, anyway.