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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

What to look for when the Heels face the Orange.

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

Life comes at you fast in the ACC. Just like Carolina couldn’t relax and enjoy their Duke win before focusing on Florida State, now Syracuse and their 2-3 zone roll into Chapel Hill. Coach Jim Boeheim brings his squad in after suffering a close loss to Duke on Saturday, and they are looking to build their resume as the NCAA Tournament inches closer.

So what are three things to look for as Carolina plays Syracuse?

The infamous 2-3 zone

Perhaps no other coach has become as defined by a defense as Boeheim has with his 2-3 zone. As most players grow up playing against man-to-man, the one time they have to face zone defense usually manages to confound teams simply because it’s different.

Carolina hasn’t been one of those teams.

Since the Orange joined the league in the 2013-14 season, Syracuse has gotten a grand total of one win against the Tar Heels. One. That win was the first time they met in 2014, meaning UNC has seven straight against Boeheim, including three straight in 2016. The results speak for themselves: Roy Williams and his coaching staff know how to prepare his teams for this defense.

What makes this season interesting is how they’ll choose to attack it. Normally, Carolina has had the size inside that even though the Orange would pack it in like you are supposed to in a zone, they still will attack close to the basket and find success. Last season saw Carolina lack that experienced size for the first time, but they were still able to grind out a win thanks to 23 from Theo Pinson and eight three-pointers. This year, the answer seemingly would have been to rely on the bevy of three-point shooters Carolina has, and yet the last two games has seen Carolina attack the basket with reckless abandon. It presents a real challenge for the Orange, one that’s even tougher because of who has been attacking and where they’ve been getting their points.

Does Carolina continue to attack the rim and take 10-15 footers at the soft part of the zone, do they try to find their three-point shooting touch again and just try to torch from outside, or do they use the baseline and try to play a similar style to their normal brand of ball? We’ll just have to see.

Will Nassir Little make it two in a row?

One of the big keys to the dominating win on Saturday was just how fearlessly Nassir Little went to the basket, both to score and get rebounds. Because of the way Syracuse defends, these opportunities can absolutely be there for Little again. If he goes at the Orange with the same confidence he had going up against the taller Seminoles, it could be another monster game for the freshman.

Just look at his two monster dunks from Saturday and imagine a zone trying to contain him.

Presumably, the man at the top of the zone wouldn’t have the size to compete with Little, which would allow him to get a head of steam. As he showed here, once he gets that momentum, he’s...difficult to stop.

I admit, I missed this until seeing the replay. Look at how far away Little is from the basket before he starts running to get the rebound. He was calling for the ball before the shot, and he knew it was going to miss. Again, it’s easy to imagine him being able to slip behind the back of the zone in order to do this.

There are a lot of players who have the potential for a big game against Syracuse, but this version of Little could eat the Orange alive. The quotes coming from Little after the game make one believe he’s locked in, and if he is, look out.

As for that other freshman

If there’s one place where the different sort of defense that Syracuse plays could be an issue, it’s at point guard. Coby White hasn’t exactly looked his best the last couple of games, missing almost all of his three-pointers and looking every bit like the freshman that he is. It became pretty clear he was pressing himself during the Duke game, and a 4-3 assist-to-turnover ratio on Saturday was one of the few dark spots in an otherwise great game UNC had against the Seminoles.

Going up against a defense that is vulnerable against the three-point shot, it’s easy to see Coby thinking he has to take it upon himself to open up some room for his teammates by forcing some shots. He also doesn’t have a ton of experience passing into the teeth of that defense, and that opens itself up for more turnovers.

That said, the team as a whole has been a lot better about passing around the perimeter in the half court, and that’s going to be needed to get the zone to be in continual movement. That movement should open up some lanes, and there is every reason to believe that Coby will be able to get some shots in rhythm. He also should be able to use his speed to attack the soft part of the zone and get some easy layups.

So, do we get the Coby of the three halves against Duke and FSU, or the Coby that started to show up in the second half of FSU? The answer could play a big part in whether Carolina locks up no worse than a three seed in the ACC Tournament.