ACC Tournament: North Carolina vs Pittsburgh, Noon, ESPN/ACC Network
UNC opens ACC Tournament play with Pittsburgh in the first game of the quarterfinals. Here are the focal points.
Tight vs Loose
It is not uncommon in the ACC Tournament era of double-byes for a team that has one game under the belt to play better than the team making its first appearance of the event. Pittsburgh got its proverbial feet wet on Wednesday with a hard fought win over Syracuse to get to today's quarterfinals. The Panthers have played a game in this arena, gotten a feel for the court and have acclimated to the sight lines. UNC has gone through one light practice at the Verizon Center before taking a full practice at a local high school on Wednesday.
The other element is UNC, as the #1 seed, feeling some pressure and playing tight. Pitt, on the other hand, has plenty of motivation. The 21 point loss to the Tar Heels on Valentine's Day probably still stings and a win over UNC could give the Panthers enough to get them an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. Pitt is also considered an underdog and in that respect can play like a team that has nothing to lose.
UNC is still battling for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and placement in the Raleigh pod for the First and Second Rounds. More than that, the UNC players would love to get some hardware in D.C. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson have been in the ACC title games in two of their first three seasons and last year's loss to Notre Dame left a bad taste in their mouths. The first step towards that is a win today.
Who Steps Up?
The ideal question to this is everyone does. The best hope is UNC starts getting the best every player can offer starting today and it carries forward for eight more games. That's probably a little outside the realm of possibility but for UNC to really hit its stride all the different parts need to get on the same page. Based on the season so far Brice Johnson and Joel Berry have been the most reliable while Justin Jackson has shown what he's capable of over the back half of the ACC schedule. Kennedy Meeks made some noise versus Duke and while Isaiah Hicks struggled in Durham, that probably won't last long.
Again the focus comes back to Marcus Paige. In many ways coming to term with Paige's struggles would be much easier if the first ten games of his season had not happened. When he returned from injury, Paige was everything we thought he would be and maybe more. The defense looked better with him on the floor, his presence gave Berry a level of comfort he needed to really run the offense and Paige was both a shooter and scorer. Since the 30 points versus FSU it has been very hit and miss with the emphasis on miss. The lone bright spot since then from a scoring standpoint was 21 points versus Notre Dame which was part of a stretch where Paige hit 11-20 from three over a three game stretch.
The silver lining with Paige is he gives you other things on the court. His defense is important as is his leadership. He had eight assists versus Syracuse on Senior Night even though he was shooting the ball poorly. Despite being 3-10 from the field against Duke, he went 4-4 at the line to seal the win over the Blue Devils. Still, UNC's viability as a title contender was predicated heavily on getting some version of Second Half Marcus Paige. The ACC Tournament has often been a breeding ground for players finding their shot, could it he the case for Paige?
Defense and rebounding
One of the hallmarks of UNC's 21 point win over Pitt in February was the defense looked very much locked in. With the exception of the loss at Virginia, UNC's defense has been trending in the right direction over the past eight games. At present, UNC has risen to 25th nationally in defensive efficiency putting them square in the group of Final Four contenders. In the first game against Pitt, UNC held the Panthers to an offensive efficiency of 88.7 despite giving up an ORB% of 40.4. Continuing to do the former while shoring up the latter will be key in this game.
Pitt does present itself as a dangerous team hitting 35% from three and 75.9% at the free throw line. If UNC gets foul happy it would be handing the Panthers an easy avenue to get points. The Panthers have multiple three point shooters and a preference to slow the tempo. There are also players like Cameron Johnson who, prior to the ACC Tournament, had two double figure scoring games all season. Johnson lit Syracuse up for 24 points and made four threes. Such is the danger of this type of event where a player can come out of nowhere for a big game.
Since UNC's offense can be a little inconsistent, keying the defense in will be critical.
UNC 88 Pitt 75