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Game Preview: #13 UNC vs Syracuse

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs Syracuse, 7:00 PM, ESPN

November 21, 1987.

That was the last occasion on which UNC played Syracuse and won. On that day, with J.R. Reid suspended, Ranzino Smith scored 21 and a pair of freshman named Rick Fox and Pete Chilcutt scored 15 and 14 points respectively to give the Heels a 96-93 win in overtime over the #1 ranked Orange. That win came eight months after the Heels were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Syracuse. Since then the Heels have lost twice to the Orange, once in November of 2009 and last season at the Carrier Dome.

With UNC facing a road trip to Louisville on Saturday then hosting #2 Virginia next Monday, this is another "take care of business" type of game. The Heels are favored by double digits both in Vegas and according to KenPom. This is also a home game and one UNC can ill afford to lose given the toughness of the schedule going forward. UNC is supposed to win this game and it is at home which means a loss here could be damaging.

At present UNC is struggling with looking every bit like a capable top 15 team but dealing with some out of kilter execution offensivelty. With the exception of the second half against Wake Forest, UNC's last three games have felt like the Tar Heels have done just enough to get by against inferior teams. It isn't so much an effort or intensity issue(though they are factors) but one of overall consistency. The execution has looked off and the lack of practice thanks to injuries could very well be the reason. UNC is not able to get nearly as much time on the court together away from games and at some point that has to take a toll in terms of how the team performs.

The challenge facing UNC in this game is Syracuse's zone which will require the Tar Heels to be patient and execute. Kennedy Meeks or Brice Johnson operating in the high post are critical to breaking the zone though the Orange length will make that difficult. UNC also has to resist the temptation to settle for threes because doing so it playing into the Tar Heels' greatest offensive weakness. Being patient enough to wait for the ideal shot will be difficult but doable given the passing acumen UNC's players possess. Hitting said shot is where the real concern lies.

UNC can also beat the zone by beating Syracuse down the court. Turnovers and defensive rebounds will be critical to permit the Tar Heels to get out in transition and to the basket before the zone sets up. The Orange rebound 35.7% of their own misses which is decent enough to give the Tar Heels trouble on the defensive backboards.

The Orange's main offense production comes from a trio of players. 6-9 Rakeem Christmas is averaging 18.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 2.1 bpg. He will be a force inside for the Tar Heel interior players to handle. The ability to score on the inside also means Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije will have open looks on the perimeter. Cooney is hitting 37.4% of his threes while Gbinije is 14-28 from beyond the arc in ACC play. The Orange offense is balanced enough to give the Heels trouble, especially if the defense can be collapsed.

Despite the Virginia Tech and FSU games being closer than they should have been, UNC has been winning and trending in the right direction. A win versus Syracuse puts the Heels at 7-1 entering a crucial stretch of the season. Since the loss at Kentucky, the Heels have won 10 of 11 and are still positioned to make noise in the upper end of the ACC standings providing UNC keeps winning.

UNC 73 Syracuse 62