Here we are. Ten weeks of brutal, exhausting, and exhilarating conference play is ahead of the No. 13 North Carolina Tar Heels. Nothing against the new brethren in the league, but it just feels right starting off conference play against a fellow charter ACC member.
Needless to say, Carolina and the ACC regular season are like two peas in a pod. In 64 seasons of ACC basketball, UNC has finished below third just nine times. Don’t forget those 37 straight seasons, including 33 straight under Coach Dean Smith, that the Heels finished no worse than a tie for third.
Out of the 78 regular season champion and co-champion titles earned, the Tar Heels have won 31 of them. That’s nearly 40 percent. If Carolina wants to earn their 32nd regular season crown and go back-to-back-to-back, a good start is imperative. With two tough road games against Florida State and Virginia looming, the Tar Heels must take care of business against the Demon Deacons at the Smith Center Saturday.
Here are three things to watch against Wake Forest:
Coming into the season, Carolina fans knew there were some question marks with the team, especially with the young front court and replacing the production of ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson. One area that was not expected was turnovers.
These Tar Heels have a turnover average of 13.6 per game, ranking 176th in the country. The turnover margin of -0.64 is second to last in the ACC. Granted, the average is not necessarily alarming considering other successful teams in the Roy Williams era were in the same range. Another statistic that eases the pain is the assist to turnover ratio of 1.38, which puts UNC 44th in the country. Two players that must improve in this area are Theo Pinson and Cam Johnson.
As highlighted previously, Johnson’s ballhandling is a weakness right now. He has a small sample size in the Carolina system so far, so there may be improvements as Johnson continues to get comfortable at game speed. Although Pinson remains second on the team in assist to turnover ratio at 1.68, in the last three games he has committed eight turnovers. With their struggles defensively, Wake Forest may be the right opponent for Pinson to shake off his recent miscues.
The Tar Heels were outscored in the paint against Ohio State, however they made a concerted effort to look inside more during the second half. UNC scored 16 of their 20 points in the paint during the second stanza in New Orleans.
It almost feels as though Tar Heel fans are heading into uncharted waters without the strong or dominant inside force being the anchor of the offense. The silver lining is that Carolina is still out rebounding their opponents, led by the efforts of Luke Maye who is averaging 10.6 rebounds per game, good for second in the ACC.
As seen in the Ohio State game, the competition is down to Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. However, it seems as though a lineup with Maye at the five and Johnson at the four will be relied upon quite heavily, at least for the near future.
But it is a long league season, and a true inside presence will be needed. Brooks and Manley need to get a substantive taste of league play on Saturday. Trial by fire may be the best learning method in the first few games in the conference schedule, and there is a great test for those young men in Wake Forest center Doral Moore.
The 7’-1” junior is averaging 10.5 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game this season. He takes high percentage shots and has a nice hook shot to boot. The 280-pounder will be a handful for Brooks and Manley.
This is both for the Carolina offense and defense. On the defensive end, the Tar Heels must contain guards Keyshawn Woods and Bryant Crawford. The two juniors are the leading scorers for the Deacs, with Woods and Crawford averaging 16.0 and 15.3 points per game, respectfully.
Against Tennessee, Crawford was shut down and did not factor into the game. In season-low 20 minutes of game time, he was 1-6 from the floor and committed seven turnovers. Woods carried the load for Wake Forest, scoring 18 on 5-12 shooting from the floor and a perfect 6-6 from the free throw line.
The perimeter defense has been a concern at times for the Tar Heels this season. Perhaps Wake Forest will see a greater opportunity on the inside with Moore, taking some pressure off Woods and Crawford to perform. No matter their plan of attack, look for Pinson, Joel Berry II, and Kenny Williams to step up against the high performing guard duo.
For the UNC offense, they may have an opportunity to get their shooters on a roll against a woeful Demon Deacon defense. Wake Forest is last in the league in scoring defense, last in field goal percentage defense, and last in three point percentage defense.
For those Tar Heels that struggled offensively against Ohio State, this is a chance to get conference play started off on the right foot. Look for Williams to have a much more productive day on the offensive end when he back on the Smith Center floor.
What will you be looking for in the ACC opener against Wake Forest? Let us know in the comments below.