Can it be tipoff already, please? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need to hear the Dean Dome roar on Saturday night like it hasn’t roared yet this season. Wait, I lied: I absolutely know the rest of you feel the same. And if you think Gonzaga’s loss to Tennessee took some of the shine off this showdown, you’re crazy (We can’t let Rick Barnes win, guys. Never.).
With a little over 24 hours to go before tipoff, here are three key things to watch when the Zags come to Chapel Hill.
Coby White vs. Josh Perkins
It’s a classic case of the young buck against the wily veteran. And for the first time in a long time, Carolina rolls out the young buck. Coby White will face his most challenging matchup of his college career thus far on Saturday in the person of Josh Perkins.
Perkins, a fifth-year senior, has been one of the best floor generals in the country this season. He averages 10.2 points to go with 8.4 assists per game. His assist to turnover ratio is better than four to one. Perkins has always been a sure-handed point guard, but this season, with his teammates now developing into stars, he has become more of an impact playmaker and creator for his high-scoring teammates. Coby will need to bring his A-game on both ends of the floor to win the battle.
Coby’s play has been one of the brightest spots for UNC in the early stages of the season, but he has not yet faced a player of Perkins’ poise and caliber yet. Kerwin Roach of Texas played a terrific game in Vegas but he is a VERY streaky, score-first guard. Perkins has no such erratic tendencies. In addition, Coby hasn’t played since the debacle in Ann Arbor two weeks ago. But if he can keep his poise in a highly charged home environment, he can make a very loud (and important) statement both for himself and the Heels.
Will the Real Luke Maye Please Stand Up?
Much (and I mean MUCH) has been said about Luke Maye’s play so far this season, so I will try not to belabor the point. We all know the situation through 10 games: His numbers are a bit down, his shooting has been off, and his defense has been downright atrocious at times. This is perfectly normal. MANY Tar Heels have experienced slumps in the past: Marcus Paige in 2016, Harrison Barnes in 2011, Wayne Ellington in 2009 are just a few examples. All of their seasons ended up going pretty darn good, didn’t they? Luke’s early season struggles (offensively at least) will surely pass.
What IS cause for concern, however, is how he will fare on Saturday night, not because of any early season trend but because of how he tends to play against this kind of opponent. Luke struggles mightily against athletic bigs who play strong interior defense. Last season some of his worst performances came against Michigan State at the PK80 and against Texas A&M in the...well, you know what happened. This season, his worst games were against Texas and Michigan, both Carolina losses, and both against teams that have strong, athletic shot-blockers. Luke scored 11 points in both games on 33% shooting. And his defense was even weaker.
Gonzaga features two terrific big men in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Hachimura is one of the best scoring bigs in the country (22.2 ppg on 57% and 47% shooting) and Clarke is one of the best rim protectors, with 3.3 blocks per game. Those are two bad boys right there. Luke has got his work cut out for him, no matter which of these two he is matched up with.
Who Will Run Afoul of the Fouls?
At times this season, UNC has fallen victim to a case of the “Why, ______? Why?” Syndrome. Example: When Garrison Brooks commits an over-the-back foul on an offensive rebound to pick up his second foul with approximately 36 minutes of game time remaining. Or when Luke crashes into a guard in transition. Or when Kenny fouls on a three (this is a more rare occasion but it still saddens us greatly). Generally speaking, the Heels have largely gotten away with this so far this year. Their two losses were not the product of foul trouble and their worst foul trouble has come against inferior opposition.
That trend will need to continue against Gonzaga, particularly in the frontline. With the strong play of Gonzaga’s interior players, UNC will need all hands on deck to keep them from getting easy buckets inside. Brooks, Maye, and Sterling Manley can’t afford to pick up cheap fouls. If that wasn't enough motivation, Gonzaga is an excellent free throw shooting team, with only Clarke being suspect at the line.
On the flip side, however, Gonzaga is dealing with injuries to two of its expected rotation players: Killian Tillie has not yet played for the Zags this year and Geno Crandall, a veteran point guard, is also out for Saturday’s game. As such, Gonzaga will be only seven deep and their backups are freshman big Filip Petrusev and the little-used Jeremy Jones. The Zags won’t have a true backup point guard and if either Clarke or Hachimura get in foul trouble, UNC will be dealing with one of the few underclassmen on a teammainly composed of veterans. Carolina’s depth could be its strongest weapon.
I say again: Can it be tipoff already?!