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UNC vs Ohio State: Three Things to Watch

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Health concerns, two-point efficiency, and three-point defense

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Oregon vs North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time to look forward to the holidays. If you’re a UNC basketball fan, this time of year usually serves as the main portion of the non-conference schedule. The Feast Week tournaments are behind us, everyone has a little bit better understanding of where their team stands, and a few major names are still on the docket. This season is no different.

Tomorrow, the Heels welcome the Buckeyes from Ohio State in the annual ACC/B1G Challenge. Ohio State is riding a wave of undefeated momentum, partly buoyed by a shellacking of Villanova. Carolina is looking for a second consecutive resume-building win after recovering to beat Oregon last Friday. Here are three quick things that UNC fans can look for tomorrow night.

Health Concerns

This could be a daily update at this point, but it takes on a heightened importance against quality opponents. This cannot be said enough, but UNC is effectively playing with no more than 10 healthy scholarship players. That’s three fewer than the allotted amount, and considering the relative health of the squad, arguably misleading.

Sterling Manley, Anthony Harris, and Jeremiah Francis remain sidelined with offseason injuries. Leaky Black didn’t return after aggravating a foot injury against Oregon. Brandon Robinson is capable, but still somewhat limited, after returning from a sprained ankle and playing three games in three days in the Bahamas. Cole Anthony was spotted in a walking boot after the Oregon game, though a lack of an official statement from the team makes that seem more precautionary than rehabilitative. Assuming Garrison Brooks' scratched cornea has healed, that leaves the Heels with seven “healthy” options. Brooks, Justin Pierce, Christian Keeling, Armando Bacot, Andrew Platek, Brandon Huffman and K.J. Smith all saw quality minutes last week.

Though he was nothing short of exceptional in emergency relief on Friday, Smith is literally the last scholarship on the bench. For context, imagine if Shea Rush (who held the rotating 13th scholarship the previous two years) was called into emergency duty for Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, or Cameron Johnson. Tar Heel nation would throw their hands in the air, hold their breath, and pray. The fact this team is 6-1 with wins over Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon is a testament to this team’s resolve and Roy’s coaching. That may not be enough against Ohio State.

Banging in the Paint

Virginia gets plenty of attention for their painfully slow pace of play. Ohio State isn’t much better. Currently averaging 66.1 possessions per game, according to KenPom, the Buckeyes have topped 70 possessions just twice — against powerhouses UMass-Lowell and Morgan St. North Carolina, depsite their slower than normal pace so far, has played just one game at fewer than 70 possession. Something has to give.

Riding a suffocating defense, OSU are forcing opponents to shoot 35.9% inside the arc and scoring just 48.8% of their overall point totals from the same area. That’s problematic for UNC who is hitting just 47.2% of their two-point attempts, yet produce 57.3% of their total scoring from inside the three-point line. That math, combined with OSU’s early season defense, doesn’t favor the Heels.

However, there is reason for optimism. Ohio State big men Kaleb Wesson (6-9, 270) and Kyle Young (6-8, 205) combine for 21.6 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 2.4 blocks per game, but likely haven't been challenged this season by a duo like Brooks and Bacot. The Tar Heel tandem are averaging 24.6/17.9/2.6/2.9 and have already battled against four KenPom top-100 teams. Ohio State has only faced two such teams, and none since Villanova (at home) in the second game of the season. This will be their first road game of the season.

As I said in yesterday’s final Battle 4 Atlantis review, UNC will have to hammer the offensive boards, attack the glass, and hit any subsequent free throws to slug this one out.

Bombs Away

Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but a North Carolina opponent is good at shooting threes. Ohio State has nine players who average at least one three-point attempt per game. Of those nine, seven are shooting between 38.5% and 51.9%. As a team, OSU is shooting 39.7% from deep, on just 22.5 attempts per game. That is, uh, very efficient, folks.

North Carolina’s opponents, meanwhile, are “only” shooting 32.5% against the Heels. In a year where outside shooting is down across the nation, that’s not great, but not terrible (the Heels rank 168th in the country, but that mark would have been top 70 last year). A deeper look, though, reveals that their last four opponents have shot 35.5% or better, while averaging 29.8 3PA a game. Check it out:

Elon - 12-32, 37.5%
Alabama - 11-31, 35.5%
Michigan - 11-26, 42.3%
Oregon - 12-30, 40.0%

Folks, this ain’t rocket science. Ohio State is going to grind out offensive possessions to get high percentage shots at the rim or behind the arc, in order to maximize their slower pace of play. If they’re hitting, then UNC is in serious trouble. If UNC can’t contest on the perimeter, hit the defensive glass, and hold the Buckeyes to one shot per possession, it’s going to be a long night. These Heels have not yet shown the ability to run a team up and down the court to generate extra shot attempts and cannot allow OSU to dominate the clock with drawn out possessions.

But look on the bright side. Win or lose, it should be great practice for Virginia on Sunday.