Tonight, North Carolina continues its season against the visiting Bucknell Bison. The Bison are riding a season opening two-game losing streak after falling to Monmouth and Arkansas. The Heels easily dispatched Northern Iowa without Joel Berry and Cam Johnson. They will aim to repeat that performance.
Don’t let the record fool you. The reigning Patriot League champions return their entire starting five from last season’s squad that finished 26-9 (15-3). A veteran team is not likely to be overwhelmed by a Wednesday night crowd in the Smith Center.
That includes 6’10” 235lb starting center, Nana Foulland. A three-year starter, the senior Foulland pulled off the rare feat of winning the 2017 Patriot League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Last season he averaged 15 point, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. The UNC freshmen trio down low will have their hands full.
He is joined in the post by senior forward Zach Thomas (6’7”, 228). Through two games, Thomas is averaging 27.5 points and 13 rebounds per game. A 42.5% shooter last season from three, he has continued his inside-outside success by hitting 10 of 18 three point attempts this year. Combined with Foulland, they will provide a stiff early-season test for the UNC front line that was so impressive last week.
The perimeter isn’t quite as threatening as the Bison frontcourt, but it’s still formidable. Their catalyst is point guard Stephen Brown (5’11”, 165). A more traditional point guard who possesses the ability to score, he enters tonight averaging 12 points and 7.5 assists through the first week of the season. With a 39% success rate from three, he can hurt UNC in multiple ways.
The biggest question for UNC is whether Joel Berry (hand) or Cam Johnson (neck) make their season debuts. During his weekly “Roy Williams Live” radio show, Williams said Berry was “cautiously feeling better” and practiced on Monday. While that’s not a ringing endorsement (and may just be regular coach speak), it’s at least confirmation that Berry hasn’t suffered any set backs.
Barring any other unforseen injuries, expect to see more of the same from the Heels. Yesterday, our own Kyle Britt pointed out three things to watch that addresses some UNC-centric questions. Perhaps the more pressing concern still looming is who will step up and grab the back-up point guard spot? Neither Jalek Felton or Seventh Woods truly separated themselves against Northern Iowa. Bucknell’s experienced squad will provide another solid test.
What To Expect
There is no denying that the starting duo of Foulland and Thomas present a talented, experienced, versatile front line. While the Bison don’t enjoy an overwhelming size advantage, they will pose a much needed early season challenge before North Carolina visits the West Coast next week. At 6’9”, Garrison Brooks will often be undersized at the “5” and Sterling Manley does not yet have the physical conditioning to play long stretches. Their ability to replicate anything close to their combined 23 points and 14 rebounds will be put to the test.
It will also be interesting to see who draws the defensive assignment against the inside-out threat of Thomas. For all of Luke Maye’s talents, his ability to guard an athletic, prolific scoring stretch-4 has not been proven. This mid-week clash may provide a glimpse into whether he has (or has not) improved this area of his game.
On the positive side for UNC, they will be facing a road weary team that is short on depth. This will be the Bison’s third road game in six days. While nine players average double digit minutes, only three average in double digit points. Their offensive production relies heavily on the three players mentioned above. Just because a team has bodies does not mean they have depth.
Additionally, all of that traveling is not optimal for a team that shoots 48% of its field goals from three. Of Bucknell’s 124 field goal attempts, 60 have been from behind the arc (with a 40% success rate). If Bucknell continues that shooting pace, tired and dead legs are eventually going to negatively effect their shooting success.
The Bison should be a little more competitive, but when the buzzer sounds, the Heels should walk away with a win. Then it’s on to Stanford.