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#15 UNC at Pittsburgh: Game Preview

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The ACC season starts with a trip to Pittsburgh.

NCAA Basketball: Harvard at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, UNC’s 2018-2019 ACC basketball season kicks off. Because we cannot have nice things, the Heels will open up with a road nooner against Pittsburgh. What can go wrong!? If you are having flashbacks of the 2016-2017 loss to Georgia Tech ACC opener, you are not alone.

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let’s dive into a quick preview of the ACC opener for both teams.

WHO: #15 North Carolina (9-3) at Pittsburgh (10-3)
WHAT: ACC opener
WHEN: Saturday, January 5th, 12:00 EST
WHERE: Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, PA
WHY: Hopefully to watch UNC win their 6th consecutive game against Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Panthers

Expected Starters

PG: Xavier Johnson (FR), 6-3/190, 16.3 ppg, 3.6 reb, 5.0 asst
SG: Trey McGowens (FR), 6-3/185, 12.1 ppg, 3.2 reb, 1.7 asst
SG/SF: Au’Diese Toney (FR), 6-6/210, 10.2 ppg, 6.2 reb, 0.4 ast
SG/SF: Jared Wilson-Frame (SR), 6-5/220, 12.2 ppg, 5.0 reb, 1.8 asst
PF/C: Kene Chukwuka (JR), 6-9/215, 5.1 ppg, 5.0 reb, 0.4 asst

What to Know:

Don’t be overly impressed with their 10 wins. Their non-conference schedule is among the weakest in the nation. According to KenPom.com, the Panthers non-conference schedule is ranked 345 out of 353 Division-I teams. With only two road games (losses against Iowa and West Virginia) and two neutral court games (wins against Saint Louis and Duquesne) , Pitt have won eight of their nine home games against mid and low-majors. In other words, they didn’t earn the majority of their wins. They bought them. It’s a smart move to gain some early momentum in Jeff Capel’s first year, but this team should struggle in ACC play.

The main reason is youth, inexperience, and a lack of size. Sophomore reserve forward Terrell Brown is their only player that stands above 6-9. He is a towering….6-10. The majority of key contributors stand at 6-6 or shorter. That leads to significant rebounding problems (opponents grab over 30% of their offensive rebounds), but that has been mitigated by stingy defense that forces turnovers on almost 25% of their defensive possessions.

Whether by choice or a product of Kevin Stallings’ abysmal recruiting efforts prior to his arrival, Capel has opted for a four-guard line-up. That attack is led by three freshman guards, Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney. All three are averaging more than 25 minutes per game and account for 50% of Pittsburgh 77.4 points per game.

Joined by senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame, and the Panthers possess a style of play that can cause trouble if they get hot from outside. Johnson, Wilson-Frame, and reserve guard Sidy N’Dir all are shooting above 40% from deep. If you’re looking for a reason to worry, UNC is prone to struggles against perimeter-oriented teams who can drive and/or kick out.

Yet, despite their smaller size, the Panthers take what the defense gives and look to get to the rim as much as possible. Only 35.2% of their shot attempts come three (UNC is at 33.1%), and Pittsburgh is shooting just 34% as a team from behind the arc (UNC has a 36.4% success rate). For as different as the two teams are, there are some weird similarities.

If those shooting rates hold true, UNC’s size should make this a comfortable Tar Heel win. However, it just takes one or two players to get hot to create an upset. With UNC’s inconsistent defensive performance this season, combined with the 12:00 start time, the Panthers possess enough threats to make this a dangerous game.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Expected Starters

PG: Coby White (FR), 6-5/185, 13.8 pts, 2.6 reb, 4.0 asst
SG: Kenny Williams (SR), 6-3/165, 8.5 ppg, 3.0 reb, 4.5 asst
SF: Cameron Johnson (SR), 6-8/185, 16.4 ppg, 5.2 reb, 1.6 asst
PF: Luke Maye (SR), 6-8/225, 14.2 ppg, 9.8 reb, 1.9 asst
C: Garrison Brooks (SO), 6-9/215, 8.8 ppg, 5.8 reb, 0.8 asst

What to Know:

You know the Heels’ players by this point, so we’ll steer clear of an in-depth preview. Luke Maye is averaging 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds. Cam Johnson is shooting 47.8% from three and leads the team with 16.4 points per game. Kenny Williams leads the team in assists with 4.5 per game.

Despite the lack of a towering inside presence this season, the Heels are still taller, bigger, and more experienced than the Panthers. They are also holding strong to their traditional two-post offense. That should prove to be an advantage on Saturday.

Yes, the small lineup has seen more action in recent games. Yes, Nassir Little and Coby White have both appeared to make huge leaps in their understanding of the offense and their roles. In the past two games, White has 11 assists and 4 turnovers. Little is shooting 75% from the floor and averaging 11 points off the bench.

However, there is a difference performing against Harvard and Davidson compared to ACC competition. The small-ball lineup will continue to get burn, but its effectiveness should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism for the time being. It’s also not quite the necessity this season (yet), that it was last season.

With Sterling Manley’s status unknown at the time of this posting, the key will be Garrison Brooks’ ability to stay out of early foul trouble. Over the past two games against Harvard and Davidson, North Carolina has allowed 35 points in the 33 minutes that Garrison Brooks has been on the court. They have allowed 82 points in the other 47 minutes.

A 12 o’clock shootout at the OK Corral is not a guaranteed prescription for victory. Simply outscoring opponents is not a sufficient strategy. Brooks’ defense will be needed to force missed shots, grab rebounds and push the ball in transition to score easy buckets.

Just as importantly, Brooks will have to provide some inside-out ball movement from the post to find Cam, Kenny, and Luke open on the perimeter or cutting down the lane. If the ball simply swings around the arc, or Coby White reverts back to his out-of-control Gonzaga and Kentucky methods, the Pitt defense will force poor shots (holding opponents to 27.6% from 3) and stupid turnovers. Both of those are a recipe for disaster to open the ACC season.

Prediction:

Regardless of the possibilities for an upset, the Heels are too deep and experienced to let this one get away. The Panthers’ style of play can be frustrating, but unless they commit to a zone defense for long stretches (not recommended with such a small lineup), the Heels should pull away early in the second half.

North Carolina 82
Pittsburgh 68