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North Carolina, Oregon face a confrontation in the paint

By Colton Bennett

Sports Capital Journalism Program

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Everything points to the Final Four matchup between Oregon and North Carolina becoming a bruising game on the inside. North Carolina (31-7) is making a record 20th Final Four appearance. The Tar Heels are averaging 39.9 points per game in the paint this season and also come in as the nation’s best offensive rebounding team at 15.7 per game.

Oregon (33-5), which has not gone this far since the Ducks won the inaugural 1939 championship, is the top shot-blocking team in the nation with 241 and ranks 13th in the nation in total defensive rebounds with 994.

The driving force to Oregon’s dominance down low has been junior Jordan Bell, who blocked eight shots in the Midwest regional final victory over Kansas. Bell, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, is also the first player since Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon to grab 12 or more rebounds in five straight NCAA tournament games.

Bell, a 6-9 forward, knows that North Carolina’s superior size will require his Oregon teammates to help him control the paint. “It’s gonna be very tough, as far as keeping them off the board,” Bell said during Friday’s press conference. “I think this is going to come down to the whole team. We gotta rebound. I think that everybody is gonna have to crack down on their bigs, you know, and really just help out with rebounds.”

The two main “bigs” Bell is talking about are North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye, whose 19-foot jumper with 0.3 seconds to play defeated Kentucky in the South regional final, and 6-10 senior Kennedy Meeks. Maye had a career-high 17 points against Kentucky, while Meeks grabbed a career-best 17 rebounds, five at the offensive end. Maye and Meeks are averaging a combined 23 points and 18 rebounds through the first four games of the tournament.

Another factor that helped the Tar Heels become the nation’s top rebounding squad has been the willingness of junior Justin Jackson to crash the boards. Jackson’s 6-8 frame gives him a size advantage against most wings in the college game and has contributed to his average of 6.3 rebounds per game in the tournament. Jackson is averaging a team best 19.8 points. He knows that for North Carolina’s offense to perform its best, the Tar Heels need to go at Bell.

“When he’s not on the court its way easier to play,” Jackson said with a chuckle. “It’ll be key to try to get him in foul trouble.”

Junior guard Joel Berry II agrees that the Tar Heels cannot be afraid to attack the basket because of a fear of getting their shots blocked. Berry II suffered a sprained right ankle during the first-round victory over Texas Southern and sprained both ankles last weekend. He estimated during the press conference that his ankles were at 85 percent. Berry II said he could move well laterally but could have trouble when driving to the basket.

“I like to get contact with a big man that likes to shot block,” Berry II said. “If I can get into his body I can draw a foul and that would be a good thing. If we can get (Bell) in foul trouble that would be an advantage for us.”

Oregon does not plan to allow the game to become that simple. The Ducks hope to get out and run in hopes of challenging the ability of the North Carolina post players to get back on defense.

“We’re confident we can beat any team in the country, it doesn’t matter who it is,” sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey said. “Other people might not believe it, but we don’t need their belief or have the hype on us. We’d rather come in as an underdog and go shock the world.”

Dorsey is in the midst of scorching scoring run that has gained him the label “Mr. March,” having scored 20 or more points in seven straight games going back to the Pac-12 tournament. He and Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks are going to do everything in their power to dethrone one of college basketball’s traditional powers at the tail end of an already crazy March Madness.

“That’s what makes March Madness so fun,” said Jackson of the Tar Heels. “It’s one game and you can go home. It’s all types of things thrown at you. The intensity level is definitely put up a notch and those are the games that we come to college to play.”

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