The North Carolina Tar Heels dominated their first conference game of the season on Saturday, beating Pittsburgh 85-60 on the road. It was Cam Johnson’s first time playing in Petersen Events Center since he transferred from Pitt prior to last season. Although Johnson and the Heels enjoyed a comfortable victory, things won’t get easier as they get deeper into ACC play.
On Tuesday, Carolina takes on NC State at PNC Arena in what will be the first installment of the series. With both teams ranked in the top 20 and a hungry Wolfpack fanbase, it should be a fun atmosphere. Here are three things to watch in this one.
Big Men Minutes
Sterling Manley sat out against Pitt, marking the second straight game the sophomore center has missed due to a knee injury. Roy Williams hasn’t made it clear when he will return, but the fact that he’s now missed multiple games isn’t a good sign.
Without Manley, Garrison Brooks notched 28 minutes against Pitt, 8.5 more than his season average. But we also saw Walker Miller see some time on the floor late in the first half, marking the first time he’s recorded minutes within the regular rotation. Brandon Huffman has also gotten some more burn as of late.
If Manley has to miss extended time, the Heels will need one of these young bigs to step up and provide legitimate minutes off the bench, especially considering Brooks’ newfound affinity for getting in early foul trouble. Though neither will be expected to score a ton, Huffman and Miller each boast a big body capable of providing rebounding and defense. It will be interesting to see if Coach Williams further integrates these two into the lineup in what is sure to be a hostile environment.
Three Point Line
At 41%, NC State is currently 8th in the nation in three point shooting. Conversely, the Tar Heels are 78th in the nation in three point defense. Roy Williams’ teams have struggled to guard the perimeter in recent years, and this season is no different.
However, the Heels have been much better as of late. In its past three games, Carolina’s opponents are shooting just 25% from beyond the arc, though the competition hasn’t exactly been stiff. Can the Heels run the hot-shooting Wolfpack off the three point line, or have the last three games simply been a matter of missed shots?
On the other side of things, the Heels have been inconsistent shooting the deep ball. Cam Johnson (49%) has been far and away the most reliable shooter on the team, but even he has had his ups and downs. Meanwhile, Kenny Williams (25%) is struggling mightily to find his shot and Luke Maye (35%) is still trying to get back to the efficiency numbers he notched last year.
NC State is holding its opponents to 28.4% from the three point line, which ranks 13th in the nation. Carolina will need to shoot the ball well if it wants to steal one in Raleigh, and it also wouldn’t be a bad time to finally get Williams going.
Another Big Road Test
This will be the Tar Heels’ 5th true road game of the season, but it’s just the second road game against a top 20 opponent. The first came during the ACC/Big Ten challenge versus Michigan, and the Heels got run out of the gym in that one. Obviously, Carolina hopes things go differently this time around.
With so many young players getting significant minutes, it’s not uncommon for there to be some jitters in these types of games. But what was concerning in the Heels’ matchup with Michigan was the disappearance of the seniors. It’s up to Johnson, Williams, and Maye to set the tone early and help settle the nerves.
One of the few positives from that Michigan game was the play of Coby White. He was really the only bright spot in what was otherwise a very ugly game, but it was encouraging to see the freshman step up the way he did in front of such a rambunctious crowd.
Regardless of the outcome, this game should be a great step towards the Tar Heels’ preparation for March, and it should be a good litmus test to see where this team stands after an up-and-down non-conference slate. A win here could mean the Heels have turned a corner and are ready to compete at the top of the ACC.