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North Carolina’s ‘freight train’ vs. Michigan’s brick wall in top-15 matchup

ANN ARBOR — Among the very few questions that get John Beilein mildly annoyed is one that implies his teams play at a slow pace.

“What do you mean by slow?” he asked a reporter after Michigan had lost 86-71 at North Carolina last season. “What does that mean? Number of possessions? Does that mean we value possessions every time, (that) we get a good shot? … We don’t play slow. We run on every single rebound as fast as we can, all right? Just don’t tell me we play slow. We really don’t. We just happen to take good shots and work a really good offense that scores buckets.”

Beilein’s point — that his teams will fast break when the opportunities are there and not consciously walk the ball up the court — is understood. But there is data for this sort of thing, and Michigan’s tempo under Beilein has typically ranked near the bottom of the country. This season is no different.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams prefers a different style.

“When I think about Coach Williams’ teams at Kansas, when they’re running, they are running downhill,” Beilein said Tuesday. “It’s like a freight train coming at you.”

No. 7 Michigan doesn’t want to get in a track meet when No. 11 North Carolina visits Crisler Center on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And the Tar Heels would rather not operate against Michigan’s set defense.

The Wolverines, during their 6-0 start, are allowing just 48.3 points per game, best in the country. North Carolina is scoring exactly double that, 96.6, the nation’s second-best mark.

Williams praised Michigan’s defense when speaking with reporters in Chapel Hill on Tuesday. “The best thing they do is they guard the ball so their teammates aren’t helping all the time,” he said. “They take personal pride in keeping their guy in front of them. … They do the best job of anybody I’ve seen so far this year of not getting beat on the dribble.”

The Wolverines work on transition defense daily. They communicate well and find 3-point shooters. Those skills will be especially important against a North Carolina team that will push the pace even after a made basket.

“When we have a fast break point, it can’t be a celebration,” Beilein said.

But a big part of transition defense starts on offense. Turnovers and bad shots — two things Michigan has mostly avoided this season — can ignite the opponent’s fast break.

Beilein said it will be hard to slow Carolina. Williams said it will be hard to speed up Michigan. They’re both right, and the result will probably be a game with more possessions than Michigan wants but fewer than Carolina prefers. That’s what happened a year ago, in a game that saw both teams catch fire early. Michigan eventually stopped scoring. North Carolina did not.

Luke Maye, a preseason All-American, scored 27 points in that game. The 6-foot-8 forward can score inside and out and is a good passer. Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikis will likely get the first crack at defending him, a matchup Brazdeikis relishes.

“I watch a lot of film on every single player I go up against so I go in fully prepared,” he said.” I feel like I know a lot of his moves. I feel like I’m ready for any sequence that goes on.”

Maye’s 14.4 points per game rank third on the team, behind Cameron Johnson (16.4) and freshman point guard Coby White (15.7). The Tar Heels are tall and athletic and start three seniors. They are 5-1, having earned two true road wins already and a win over UCLA in Las Vegas last week, the day after losing 92-89 to Texas.

“Their speed, quickness, and length is something we will rarely see this year,” Beilein said. North Carolina will rarely see a team that defends like Michigan.

On Tuesday, a reporter started to ask Beilein about the teams’ contrasting styles, using “high scoring” and “fast pace” to describe North Carolina and “defensive” and “slow down” for Michigan.

“You’re saying we’re boring?” Beilein responded with a smile before answering the question in earnest.

“We’ve embraced change all the time. This is who we are. We’re not going to win just running and gunning with people. We have to stop people and then we can get up the floor. It’s part of that puzzle that we love to put together.”

He continued.

“We’ve heard all about the Dukes and now the Gonzagas. The talent on this (North Carolina) team as it always is with Roy is as good as anybody. Don’t hand the national championship to anybody until you see this team tomorrow.”

Beilein quickly corrected himself: “These two teams tomorrow.”

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