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Game Preview: Davidson at #14 UNC

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This matchup has become basically annual, so what’s the scouting report this year?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Davidson vs Kentucky Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the sixth straight year, Roy Williams’ UNC Tar Heels will face Bob McKillop’s Davidson Wildcats in an in-state non-conference game. It’s a good tradition that features a serious clash of styles between Williams’ transition-oriented bully ball and McKillop’s perimeter assault that alerted the world to the existence of Steph Curry. It hasn’t always been easy, but so far, UNC is undefeated in this stretch. What can we expect from this edition of this matchup?

UNC is coming off a frustrating loss to blueblood rivals Kentucky that raised, or at least intensified, questions about the Tar Heels’ defense and ability to perform under pressure. Nothing really went right for the Heels other than some decent outside shooting, as they missed far too many free throws, had as many turnovers as assists, and allowed Kentucky to ring up 90 points in fairly comfortable fashion. After the loss, Williams implored his team to “buy in” a little more, and this game is their chance to respond to that plea after two weeks truly away from school.

Davidson, on the other hand, just broke a two-game losing streak with a convincing win against Central Pennsylvania, a United State Collegiate Athletic Association school. Six players scored in double figures for Davidson in a potential get-right game after losses to Temple and Wake Forest by a combined 6 points. Sometimes you just need a good result to get rolling, right?

This year’s Davidson team plays like you’d expect them to, taking 47% of their shots from behind the arc and 33% at the rim (UNC, for comparison, is at 32.8 and 32.7 respectively). It’s a fairly young team; its only senior plays 7 minutes a game and two of Davidson’s starters are freshmen. They don’t look particularly inexperienced, however; a turnover percentage of 15.2 isn’t horrendous, their defensive efficiency is better than that of most recent Wildcat teams, and their assist percentage of 55.3 isn’t great, but it’s decent enough. This team plays efficient, team basketball.

They haven’t quite put it all together, though. Shooting 34.8% from behind the arc is fine, but not really enough for an offense built on the prospect of good outside shooting. Junior guard KiShawn Pratchett has been a major contributor here, 3rd on the team in outside attempts with 51 but having made just 15 so far for a 29.4% rate. He’s a career 36% shooter, so this looks like a simple slump, but it’s caused Davidson to look worse than they should. Davidson also struggles on the glass, ranking just 122nd in the country in total rebounding percentage. Starting four guards may have something to do with this; 6’10 freshman starting center Luka Brajkovic rebounds about 16% of misses when he’s on the floor and grabs nearly 7 per game, but the rest of the Wildcats’ starters don’t give him much help in this regard.

Davidson’s offense runs primarily through guards Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady, who average 18.1 and 19.5 points per game respectively. Gudmundsson also dishes about 5 assists per game in more of a lead guard role. Both are capable of scoring in a variety of ways; each has started the season shooting at least 37.5% from beyond the arc, are excellent at the line, and finish well around the rim. Gudmundsson also has a very good midrange game, but this doesn’t get featured a ton in the Wildcats’ offense. They’re both very clearly centerpieces of the offense, because a comparatively low percentage of their shots are assisted by teammates, indicating that they play a lot of iso by design. They aren’t ball stoppers by nature, just the team’s go-to guys. Grady has been sidelined the past couple of games with a bad knee, which has contributed to the losses, but he should play on Saturday. Past them, Brajkovic is a fairly imposing presence inside, scoring about 12 points per game along with his rebounding contributions. He has double-doubled in the last two games. UNC, undersized in the post, will need to find a way to deal with him in particular.

UNC has owned this matchup in the recent past, even (especially) when Davidson had a featured star or two like Jack Gibbs. The talent disparity and particularly the discrepancy on the boards has usually tilted contests in UNC’s favor. Davidson has the ability and players to make it interesting, but given Roy Williams’ history coming off losses, UNC looks like it will be too much for the Wildcats to handle. This team’s three-point defensive woes, though, will let Davidson hang around, and there is always upset potential when that’s the case. Hopefully, UNC can put this team away and put the questions Kentucky raised behind them for a week.

Prediction: UNC 94, Davidson 79