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Game Preview: #7 UNC vs Georgia Tech

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs Georgia Tech, 12:00 PM, ACC Network

The Tar Heels welcome Georgia Tech to Chapel Hill for the Yellow Jackets' ACC opener. UNC will look for a 2-0 ACC start with road games against Florida State and Syracuse looming next week.

Here are three things to watch:

Brice Johnson bounce back game

It had been awhile since we have seen a bad game from Brice Johnson. He had been on a torrid pace over the four games prior to UNC's 80-69 win over Clemson and really over the course of the whole season so far. Johnson had scored hit double figures in every game on UNC's non-conference slate and his lowest offensive rating was 106. On Wednesday versus Clemson, Johnson struggled scoring just three points and shooting 1-for-8 from the field. It was his worst outing since back-to-back games versus Harvard and Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament last season where he was a combined 4-15 for 14 points.

On one hand, Johnson's struggles on the offensive end felt very fluky in nature. Some of his shots were a result of poor position but others were the kind of point blank range attempts he seemingly couldn't miss in the prior four games. Also of note was the fact Johnson didn't completely check out. He remained engaged on the defensive end and grabbed nine rebounds for the game. Following one miss, Johnson got out and ran the floor on the next possession which ended with a dunk for his only field goal.

Johnson has a penchant for coming back after poor outings. Last season Johnson had 11 games where he scored in single digits. In ten of the games following those games, Johnson hit double figures. The long exception was the aforementioned games against Harvard and Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. In five of those games, Johnson scored four points or less for an average of 2.8 ppg. In the five games after those, Johnson averaged 16.4 ppg and shot 60.3% from the floor. If the pattern holds, Johnson is in for a big game.

More small lineup?

With Kennedy Meeks out and Joel James fairly limited in his skill set, Roy Williams opted for a small lineup against Clemson in spots. That lineup with Theo Pinson on the floor with Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Jusitn Jackson and either Brice Johnson or Isaiah Hicks worked extremely well. That lineup was quicker and high energy especially with Pinson's play.

Until Meeks returns and UNC has a productive center on both ends, it stands to reason the small lineup will still make appearances. UNC's interior depth, even using Luke Maye, doesn't support staying with the traditional lineup for the entire game. If foul trouble crops up for Brice Johnson and/or Isaiah Hicks, the small lineup becomes even more likely.

If the small lineup continues to be effective, even when Meeks returns, it should remain an option at Roy Williams disposal. In ACC play, UNC faces several teams that are more perimeter oriented where a smaller lineup might be better suited to defend. However, the small lineup isn't just a defensive weapon. Pinson hit all three of his shots beyond the arc on Wednesday. With the lineup is four starters plus Pinson, the Tar Heels are offensively capable and can match up on defense against teams that normally operate that way.

Whatever the case, UNC has some versatility when it comes to lineup combinations.

Speaking of the defense

UNC's win over Clemson was an example of how the eye test and numbers don't always agree. For much of the game the Tar Heels were engaged on the defensive end. UNC's perimeter players hounding the ball and the screen defense from the big men was much improved over previous games.

The numbers told a different story with UNC taking a hit on defensive efficiency despite holding Clemson to 39.6% shooting and allowing a 3PA% of 35.8, down from Clemson's average of 41.0.  Despite UNC's commitment on the defensive end, the Tar Heels still got bit by Clemson making contested shots. The Tigers scored seven points with four seconds or less on the shot clock. Those three shots were well defended but the Tigers made them anyway. UNC also sent Clemson to the line too often affording free scoring opportunities.

Going against Georgia Tech, UNC will be similarly challenged to play defense without fouling. As a team, Georgia Tech has an FTR of 33.0 but leading scorer Marcus Georges-Hunt draws seven fouls per forty minutes. Sending an 81% free throw shooter to the line often could prove problematic.  The Yellow Jackets don't necessarily hunt three pointers relying more on the interior scoring. Georgia Tech has an ORB% of almost 40% with Charles Mitchell hitting 58% of his shots. This will put pressure on UNC's interior players to control the board and stay out of foul trouble.

UNC 87 Georgia Tech 68