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Game Preview: #2 UNC vs Wake Forest

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina vs Wake Forest, 7:00 PM, ESPN2

The Tar Heels face a second straight Big Four opponent and seek a 10th straight win. Here are your focal points

The ACC is a meat grinder

Needless to say, the ACC and college basketball in general have been very weird this season. No team is really safe regardless of what KenPom says about the win probability. The ACC standings are downright bizarro with Virgina Tech and Clemson occupying space in the upper tier while Duke and Virginia both have three losses already. Pittsburgh was ranked at one point but has lost two of three to Louisville and last night to previously winless in the ACC NC State after trailing by as much as 28 in the first half.

All of this volatility means UNC should be on high alert against the upset. In many ways that should always be the modus operandi for Tar Heel basketball. Every opponent shows up with a starry eyed dream of slaying the Carolina blue beast with three point arrows and inexplicable baskets at the end of the shot clock. In ACC play this can be magnified to some extent, especially when you toss the familiarity factored into the mix.

Wake Forest present some elements that could cause UNC to struggle. Devin Thomas can be a beast on the boards and capable of gobbling up rebounds. Konstantinos Mitoglou is 6-10 and a 37% three point shooter which will force one of the Tar Heel big men to operate away from the basket on defense. Freshman John Collins is an athletic 6-10 forward which decent rebounding rates while classmate Bryant Crawford has been Wake's best three point shooter at 41%.

Danny Manning's team was thought to be ready for a step forward this season but the 1-4 ACC mark and recent 28 point loss to Syracuse indicates perhaps the Demon Deacons aren't quite there yet. Still, taking down UNC at home might be the very thing Wake Forest needs to get back on track.

Bounce back games

The trio of Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson will be looking to bounce back from poor outings on Saturday against NC State. The three players combined to score just 15 points but it didn't matter has Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks picked up the slack with 47 of UNC's 67 points.

It stands to reason there won't be a repeat of those performances, at least from all three at the same time. For Marcus Paige, it has been a two game slump since he dropped 30 points and hit five threes in the 106-90 win over Florida State. Since then he has been 2-17 and 1-12 from three. Paige said he wasn't concerned with the slump following the game Saturday but him getting back on track against a porous defense is very likely.

The same goes for Brice Johnson who has been very good this season but has sandwiched three really good performances(15 pts/11 rebs vs GT, 39 pts/23 rebs at FSU, 16/pts 8 ast at Syracuse) with a three points vs Clemson and six points versus NC State. Historically, Johnson almost always scores in double digits following a single digit outing. He is not the type of player that endures long stretches of poor offensive production. Based on that, Johnson should come back with a solid outing.

Justin Jackson still searching for consistency

So far this season Justin Jackson(and occasionally Theo Pinson) have replaced J.P. Tokoto as the Tar Heel players about whom fans have selective memories. The comment "Jackson hasn't been good this season" has popped up more than once in my mentions on Twitter. There is a sense that Jackson hasn't quite lived up to expectations, especially from three point range where he is shooting just 23%(13-55). That criticism isn't without basis. Jackson is shooting worse than last season's 30% and far below the 43% from three seen in the final nine games of 2014-15.

However, that one statistical area has metastasized into "Jackson hasn't been good this season" which is categorically false both in terms of the numbers and the eye test. Has Jackson been consistent at a high level? No but he has had plenty of games where he was very good. The three game road trip to the Midwest saw Jackson hit 20 points or more in three straight games.  Since then he has been in double figures in 8 of 12 games and scored at least 15 three times.  On the season he is hitting 59% of his two point attempts and is 71% at the free throw line. In terms of plus/minus he routinely leads the team pointing to the idea that UNC is better with him on the court than off.

The expectation Jackson "will get it going" has become a game-to-game obsession. The reality is he has it going already. Jackson's game has always been about shooting floaters and finding the crevices in the defense to hit easy shots. For the most part he has done that. The concern about his three point shooting is valid and it ramping up could really make UNC's offense nearly unstoppable. For now, the question isn't when Jackson will start playing well it is can he do it for a consistent stretch. At this point if that doesn't really happen until late February when UNC needs it most(as it did last season) I think we can live with that.

UNC 101 Wake Forest 77