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UNC vs Syracuse: Game Preview

UNC has won seven straight games against Syracuse. Gulp.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow, UNC begins the final two-week stretch run to finish the regular season. Currently in a three-way tie atop the ACC standings, North Carolina has the always tricky Syracuse Orange coming to town. The Orange will have their signature zone defense in tow as they look to rebound from a tough loss to Duke on Saturday evening.

The Heels enter the game on a torrid hot streak, having only trailed for 1:26 out of a possible 120 minutes in their past three games. They never trailed on the road against Wake Forest or Duke. They then fell behind 6-3 against Florida State before retaking the lead and never trailing again. The Heels are certainly feeling some kind of way.

With a win, UNC clinches the #3 seed and a double bye in the ACC Tournament (as Al explained in detail, yesterday). It also keeps them on the very outside track to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A loss, and the Heels will have some work left to do for both post-season parties. If you want a reason for optimism, North Carolina has won seven straight games against Syracuse. The same stat will likely make you nervous that Syracuse is due for a big win.

Now that we have given you equal reasons to be excited and terrified, let’s dive into a quick preview of the ACC clash for both teams.

WHO: #8 North Carolina (22-5, 12-2 ACC) vs Syracuse (18-9, 9-5 ACC)
WHAT: UNC’s 15th ACC game and only regular season matchup against Syracuse.
WHEN: Tuesday, February 26th, 9:00 PM EST
WHERE: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, NC
WHY: Hopefully watch UNC win their 7th straight against the Orange.

Syracuse Orange

Expected Starters

G: Frank Howard (SR), 6-5/205, 8.1 ppg, 1.9 reb, 2.8 asst
G: Tyus Battle (JR), 6-6/205, 17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg
SF: Elijah Hughes (JR) 6-6/215, 13.7 ppg, 4.4 reb, 1.4 ast
PF: Oshae Brissett (SO), 6-8/210, 13.0 ppg, 7.9 reb, 1.7 asst
C: Paschal Chukwu (SR), 7-2/230, 4.0 ppg, 5.5 reb, 0.2 asst

What to know:

Note: all following stats are from ACC competition unless otherwise noted

As with most recent Syracuse teams, Boeheim’s squad is limited to a short rotation, with three players averaging over 33 minutes per game. Tyus Battle (37.5 mpg), Oshae Brissett (34.1 mpg), and Elijah Hughes (33.6 mpg) are the heart, soul, mind, body, and engine that drive this big Orange bus. It’s no coincidence they are the top three scorers on the team and it’s not always enough to just shut down one of them. Teams usually need to keep at least two of the three below their season averages if they want to walk away with a win.

Heels fans will be glad to hear that Battle (28.2%) and Brissett (25%) are not especially lethal from behind the arc. Though Battle does attempt 4.2 three-pointers per game, he and Brisset will spend most of their effort trying to get into the lane and get to the line. Battle averages 4.6 trips to the line and converts 75%. Brissett, who averages 3.9 free throw attempts while converting just 68.5%, gets his looks in and around the paint, thanks in part to his team-leading 7.4 rebounds per game (1.9 ORB).

However, the third member of that trio, Elijah Hughes is a deep threat. Not only does he make a respectable 34.9% from behind the arc, he attempts a whopping 7.6 three-pointers per game. Fellow starter Frank Howard attempts an additional 5.5 three-pointers a game with a 35% success rate. Throw in Marek Dolezaj (40%, 1.1 3PA) and Buddy Boeheim (43%, 4.1 3PA), and Syracuse has the capability of being a deadly inside-outside threat that can frustrate opponents.

The key to slowing down Syracuse will be for UNC to continue their recent dominance in the paint. With 7-2 Paschal Chukwu seeing 20.2 mpg in the middle and the entire starting lineup standing 6-5 or taller, tomorrow night presents yet another opportunity to turn a tall, long, athletic team into a one-dimensional threat. Despite their size, Syracuse is not a good offensive rebounding team, grabbing just 29.7 % of their opportunities (thank you KenPom). As we all know, UNC is among the best in the country on the boards.

Limiting the Orange to one shot throughout the night would help UNC build a lead and force Syracuse to become a three-point shooting team. Combined with the fact that the Orange are hitting less than 50% of their two-point field goals, and Carolina could secure this game by halftime. Let Syracuse hang around and dictate the tempo with their zone defense, and the Heels will be facing their third ACC loss at home.

North Carolina

Expected Starters

PG: Coby White (FR), 6-5/185, 15.2 pts, 3.2 reb, 4.2 asst
SG: Kenny Williams (SR), 6-3/165, 8.5 ppg, 3.4 reb, 3.6 asst
SF: Cam Johnson (SR), 6-8/185, 16.7 ppg, 5.7 reb, 2.3 asst
PF: Luke Maye (SR), 6-8/225, 15.1 ppg, 9.9 reb, 2.0 asst
C: Garrison Brooks (SO), 6-9/215, 8.3 ppg, 6.1 reb, 1.4 asst

What to Know:

Note: all following stats are from ACC competition unless otherwise noted

You know these guys, right? Let’s spare the breakdown of the Heels, and focus on what everyone is really concerned about. How formidable is that Syracuse zone?

In a word: Decent.

The Orange do lead the conference in defensive turnover percentage, forcing their opponents to turn the ball over 22.5% of the time. Basically, once every fifth trip down the court. That’s a product of their length, as is holding opponents to just 47.8% from two and 31.7% from three. Of their five conference losses (GT, at VT, FSU, at NC State, Duke), only Georgia Tech is the real head scratcher.

What does that mean for UNC? Glad you asked.

In past years, UNC’s hi-lo post game often proved deadly, a la Brice Johnson leading the Heels in scoring for all three matchups in 2015-2916. That hi-lo game has been largely absent for the past two years. We will have to wait for the Brooks to Manley/Bacot link-ups next season.

Last year was a little different, and I broke down how UNC decimated the zone. It basically explains how UNC’s ability to shoot the three forced Syracuse to extend the bottom wing/corner defenders out above the free throw line. This left wide-open passing and driving lanes in the paint and on the baseline, where Theo Pinson wreaked havoc. Of course, there is no Theo. The lack of a primary facilitator or a dependable hi-lo game is a legitimate concern.

However, there is still the threat of five different three-point shooters on this team. Cam (46.3), B-Rob (45.8), Nas (38.5), Coby (37.5) and Kenny (37.2) are all above 35% in conference play. Luke is trailing behind at 32%, but there isn’t a team in the country who will willingly sag off of him and dare him to shoot. That threat should force Syracuse to extend their zone high and outside, similar to last year.

If that happens, Garrison Brooks (and Nas and Luke) should have plenty of space to roam along the baseline in the short corners or cutting to the high post. Crisp ball movement to force defensive shifts and hard dribble penetration by Kenny, Cam, and Coby can exploit those lanes. The Heels can also use that open space to crash the glass with little or no contact, as the zone makes boxing out a difficult task.

If UNC can maintain their aggressive mindset while attacking the rim, move off the ball with a purpose, and swing the ball through the soft pocket in the middle of the zone, they could be on their way to another display of domination in the paint.

If they get bogged down trying to shoot over the long arms of the Orange’s zone, negating their rebounding advantage and getting stagnant on offense, Syracuse will make this interesting.


North Carolina has been too good over the past three games and are playing with an edge that has been missing for most of the season. Syracuse only has two wins over top-30 teams this season. This game should not be close. (Sorry in advance if I jinx the outcome).

North Carolina 92
Syracuse 75