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ACC Tournament Preview: UNC vs Syracuse

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Syracuse finally won an ACC Tournament game, but UNC will look to reestablish order in Brooklyn.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Folks, it happened. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse finally won a game in the ACC Tournament. Now, UNC will look to make their stay in the tournament short-lived as the Heels try to regain the momentum that led to a six game winning streak through most of February. A Tar Heel win will be their 7th straight over the Orange.

Syracuse

Starters:
Frank Howard 6-4, 170 — 15.2ppg, 3.4rpg, 5.0apg
Tyus Battle 6-8, 205 — 20.0ppg, 3.0rpg, 1.9apg
Oshae Brissett 6-8, 210 — 14.7ppg, 8.7rpg, 1.0apg
Marek Dolezaj 6-9, 180 — 4.7ppg, 4.8rpg, 1.6apg
Paschal Chuwku 7-2, 226 — 5.8ppg, 6.4rpg, 0.4apg, 2.7bpg

This is not complicated. Syracuse specializes in a defensive 2-3 zone that UNC demolished 2 weeks ago. They are who they are and they do what they do. However, that defense is currently ranked as the 10th best in the nation according to advanced stat guru Ken Pomeroy. This success is largely attributed to making teams uncomfortable, daring opponents to take mid-range jump shots and challenging shots at the rim with 7-2 center, Paschal Chukwu. Simply put: Syracuse doesn’t beat their opponents, they force opponents to beat themselves.

These traits were on display in the final 10 minutes when the two teams met in Syracuse. For most of the game, North Carolina had used just enough hot shooting to draw the defense away from the rim, and regularly earned any shot they wanted inside the paint. Syracuse finally changed to a full-court press that was designed to achieve the same objectives as it’s zone - make a team uncomfortable, disrupt their timing, and hope they miss some shots. North Carolina complied, and what should have been a 20 point blow out came down to the final possessions.

Syracuse was helped by the second half offensive explosion of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard, when the Orange scored 42 points. That duo scored a combined 35 points (and assisted on another five). Stop those two (or slow them down), and UNC’s chances of moving on to play Miami on Thursday increase dramatically. Of course, it’s fair to question if UNC is currently capable of stopping an inanimate object, much less two of the more dynamic guards in the ACC.

North Carolina

Starters:
Joel Berry II, 6-0, 195 — 17.8ppg, 3.6rpg, 3.2apg
Kenny Williams, 6-4, 185 — 11.3ppg, 3.7rpg, 2.5apg
Cameron Johnson, 6-8, 210 — 13.2ppg, 4.6rpg, 2.3apg
Theo Pinson, 6-6, 220 — 9.9ppg, 6.1rpg, 4.7apg
Luke Maye, 6-8, 240 — 17.7ppg, 10.1rpg, 2.4apg

Let’s be clear: UNC did not finish 6th in the ACC. They tied for third. This team is better than a six-seed, but unbalanced scheduling led to weird tiebreakers. That being said, the Heels will face a Syracuse team that knows it likely needs a win to punch their dance ticket. If UNC comes out flat in a city that is essentially a home game for the ‘Cuse, it will be a long, frustrating night.

The good news? The Heels are the only ACC team to have TWO First Team-All ACC performers. After losing two winnable games against Miami and Duke, Joel Berry II (17.8ppg) and Luke Maye (17.7ppg, 10.4rpg) will likely come out ready to atone for those missed chances.

Want some more good news? In approximately 60 minutes against Duke’s and Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, UNC shredded both opponents. In the second half of both games, the Heels led by double digits. If Theo Pinson, who is averaging 6.3 assists over his last 6 games, can operate as a facilitator and playmaker in the middle of the zone, the Heels will have opportunities to pull away.

The bad news? In the final 10 minutes of those games, those double digit leads evaporated when North Carolina faced a full-court press. Both times, UNC tried to respond by running and gunning — usually their strength. For various reasons however, all offensive momentum was stalled. Hopefully, after seeing that tactic twice in two weeks, the Heels will respond accordingly.

What to Expect

Don't expect anything we haven't seen before. This is likely going to a guard-oriented game and will rely on UNC’s ability to attack the zone and draw Syracuse defenders out of position. While the big men may benefit from that action— Sterling Manley had 12 points and 6 rebounds in 17 minutes last time — it will start with the guards’ ability to find those seams and passing lanes.

If you're looking for one wrinkle, don’t be surprised if Roy plays his entire bench again. Against Duke, all 12 scholarship players saw action in the first half. With potentially four games in 96 hours, stealing minutes to rest the starting five will be an interesting game of lineup Tetris. With the lack of physicality that Syracuse displays, this may provide a perfect environment to get every one a few minutes of burn.

That could also exploit a potential deficiency in Syracuse’s lineup. Three players — Brissett , Howard , and Battle— average 38 or more minutes per game. Last night, that trio logged 40, 40, and 39 minutes. Dolezaj and Chukwu pitched in another 38 and 35 minutes. Syracuse’s pace of play is not as physically taxing as other styles, so those minutes are not as depleting as they may be for other teams. However, if UNC can get anything of substance from their bench, the Heels could blow it open before the second media timeout in the second half.

Prediction: UNC 82 — Syracuse 70