UNC goes to the Carrier Dome and comes away with a second straight ACC road win to move to 4-0 in the league and 15-2 overall. Here are some observations.
Second Half Tar Heels
The running theme during the 2014 season was Second Half Marcus Paige which was the then sophomore guard's penchant for scoring most of his points in the second half. This season's team isn't quite doing that but has been very good after halftime. On Monday, UNC went 4-19 to close out the first half vs FSU and went into the locker room having shot 36.7%. In the second half, the Tar Heels shot 65.7% and scored 65 points for a 106-70 win.
On Saturday versus Syracuse it was much the same. UNC shot poorly in the first half hitting just 42% thanks in large part to going 1-9 from three. The second half it was a different story. The Tar Heels posted 51 points and shot 64.3% for the half. A big reason for that was UNC's ability to slice up the Orange zone using Brice Johnson in the high post. That led to easy baskets for Isaiah Hicks.
UNC's ability to score big in the second half isn't a new trend. Going back to last season, UNC has gotten hot in the second half.
Twenty-second time in the last 27 games Carolina has shot 50%+ in the second half https://t.co/LNA4YFvRBI— Jones Angell (@JonesAngell) January 10, 2016
Since UNC's defense continues to be an issue, the fact the offense can be relentless in the second half is mitigating that to some extent.
Brice Johnson Had Eight Assists
We could probably just stop there. Not that Brice Johnson has even been a black hole but not a player who passes out of the post much. Kennedy Meeks has been the UNC big man who gets most of the attention when it comes to being a post passer. In fact his return for this game was considered a boost because Meeks would provide some passing skill against the Orange zone. As it turns out it was Johnson who did the lion's share of the assist work teaming up with Isaiah Hicks who scored 21 points.
When facing a zone defense, there is an instinct to attack it by shooting threes. That is one way of overcoming it but that often works better against zone defenses that are less active that what Syracuse uses. The Orange employ length at the top of the zone and respond to any shooters on the perimeter making it less packed in. There is a soft spot in the zone at the free throw line where Johnson camped out most of the second half. When UNC made entry passes to Johnson in the high post he had two options: Shoot a 12-15 foot jumper or make a pass into the post.
In the first half, Johnson hit the jumper at that range showing the Orange that if they gave him the look he was capable of knocking it down. That effectively set the stage for what happened in the second half. After giving Joel James and Kennedy Meeks some early minutes, Roy Williams opted for the Hicks/Johnson frontline.
As the half unfolded, Johnson set up shop at the free throw line and UNC was effective in getting him the ball. Once Johnson faced up, Syracuse had to respect his shot since he had shown an ability to make it. Being forced to respond to Johnson as an offensive threat in the high post meant more room for Hicks and to some extent Jackson near the basket. UNC began to feast on Johnson finding Hicks along the baseline and UNC's shooting percentages went up as a result.
It was picture perfect execution against the Orange zone and done with a fair amount of patience. Early in the game UNC settled a bit for threes and while the looks were there, the Tar Heels didn't hit the shots. The interior offense was available and efficient. Once UNC solved the zone, there was little Syracuse could do to stop it.
Raise your hand if you knew Justin Jackson had 16 points before you read it in the game recap?
Okay put your hands down because you are lying.
Justin Jackson scored 16 points on 8-for-11 shooting all while battling an illness that had him down with a 101 degree fever earlier in the day. It was the first time since UNC's win over Kansas State in late November Jackson had scored more than 15 points. Jackson missed the only three he took and blew an easy layup but was 8-9 on the rest of his shots.
Jackson again shows that while his jumper might not be working, his ability to hit runners or floaters is uncanny in its success rate. As he is wont to do Jackson put up 16 points with little to no fanfare to the point seeing him double digits on the stat sheet was an absolute surprise.. While +/- isn't always the best indicator, UNC was +19 when Jackson on the floor. Only Johnson's +15 was anywhere close to the Tar Heel sophomore.
At present Jackson is fighting the ghost of last season when he hit 45% of his threes over a nine game stretch and was a key cog in getting to the ACC title game and Sweet Sixteen. Everyone keeps waiting for that level of three point shooting and of late to big a major offensive factor in the game. On a night when Marcus Paige scored just 3 points, Jackson picked up the slack along with Joel Berry's 14 points.
Isaiah Hicks' Big Night
The evolution of Isaiah Hicks this season has been a beautiful thing to watch. Hicks has an offensive rating of 140.0 which is 4th nationally. He is shooting 70% from the floor and 80% from the line. Against Syracuse, Hicks was the primary beneficiary of Johnson's assist binge routinely scoring around the basket and getting to the free throw line.
At the line Hicks feasted hitting 11-13 at the charity stripe for over half his points. In four ACC games, Hicks is drawing 8.4 fouls per 40 minutes and is 23-26 at the line. Hicks also made an impact on the boards versus Syracuse pulling down a career high eight rebounds.
Johnson and Hicks as a post combo has not generally been a good idea defensively despite the offensive benefits. UNC's defensive woes have been such that it might not matter nearly as much plus there appears to be some evidence these two have improved on the defensive end. That's not to say Kennedy Meeks will be relegated to 14 minutes per game but illustrates UNC's general ability to adapt with personnel. In short, UNC has options and with Hicks and Johnson both producing at such a high level this becomes a very difficult team to defend.