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UNC Basketball: Boston College Game Preview

The Heels head north for a final ACC road test against a team they have dominated in recent years.

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The only task standing between Carolina (24-5, 14-2 ACC) and a perfect ACC road slate is a trip to Chestnut Hill to take on Boston College (14-14, 5-11) tomorrow night at 8 pm. In what might qualify as UNC’s seemingly 300th proverbial “trap game” of the season before the rematch with Duke on Senior Night Saturday, the Heels will look to do what they’ve done in all but one true road contest in 2018-19 – win.

UNC will love to welcome back coach Roy Williams, who left Saturday’s 81-79 victory at Clemson late in the first half with a bout of vertigo. The ACC Coach of the Year candidate said after the game that he felt good enough to return once a few minutes remained, but he let it roll with assistant coach Steve Robinson to secure the team’s 12th win in 13 outings.

Fifth-year coach Jim Christian’s Eagles are 5-7 after an 0-4 start in conference action, which includes an overtime loss at NC State on Feb. 20 and another overtime setback last night at Georgia Tech, 81-78. Junior guard and Havelock, NC native Ky Bowman is tearing it up again this year, averaging 19.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists.

Bowman on Wednesday night posted 25 pounds, 12 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals. He hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 2:31 to play to help BC send Louisville to a sixth loss in eight games, 66-59. Last night, he posted 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in 45 minutes in the narrow loss to the Yellow Jackets (his third 45-minute effort this season and fifth career).

In two career games facing the Heels, Bowman has totaled 54 points on 21-of-37 shooting.

Bosnian junior forward Nic Popovic averages 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds and is coming off a 24-and-9 effort. Senior guard Jordan Chatman adds 13.5 points and sophomore forward Steffon Mitchell is a third Eagle averaging over seven rebounds with a 7.8 clip. Freshman guard Wynston Tabbs, meanwhile, has not played since Jan. 20 with a knee injury after averaging 13.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.7 assists.

This is a different-looking Eagles team than in some recent seasons, relying mostly on Bowman’s playmaking instead of egalitarian sharpshooting from the perimeter. BC is making only 32.5% of its 3-point shots after a 3-of-17 mark against GT to rank 281st in the country and ninth in the ACC. The Eagles play at their usual slow place and are only 257th in assist rate at 49.6%. They turn the ball over on only 15.6% of possessions (125th), but they force turnovers at an even lesser rate, on just 14.4% of opponent trips (309th). Boston College gathers only 49.8% of total rebounds (210th), compared to UNC’s 56.3% (fifth).

In other words, as long as the Heels don’t suffer a brain fart type of game, they should be able to work it around for good shots offensively, earn some second chances, and get up into the Eagle and disrupt them on the defensive end. Carolina certainly does not want to adopt the mentality of a “tune-up” game, but the team probably has a few things it would like to iron out in addition to grabbing a 15th league win.

One item is to find a little more action for sophomore forward Sterling Manley, who returned from a two-month, 16-game absence with knee soreness against the Tigers for just one minute. It was a notable one minute, however, as Manley drew a flagrant foul elbow from Clemson senior forward Elijah Thomas and made 1-of-2 free throws to extend the UNC lead to 36-33 with 39 seconds left before halftime. It was likely either pre-planned that Manley would only play a short stint in his return, or the big man was lost in the shuffle with coach Robinson preferring to put him on the shelf for another game in coach Williams’ absence.

Another hope is for freshman forward Nassir Little to reassert himself with smart and steady play after an underwhelming performance against the Tigers. Little scored five points, tallied six rebounds, and got a steal in 17 minutes off the bench, but he made only 1 of 7 shots and settled for several long jumpers during a seven-minute stretch at the start of the second half when UNC’s offense bogged down and scored only two points. After two straight outings in which Little showed he was one of the best players to touch the floor, the freshman was far from it in Littlejohn Coliseum.

The Heels also aim to get back on track at the free-throw line. One contest after making 34-of-37 (91.9%) shots from the charity stripe against Syracuse, Carolina made only 16-of-24 (66.7%) tries against the Tigers, including a couple of crucial misses in the last minute. Carolina has made a tidy 74.8% of free-throws this season (38th), but only one poor stretch could doom the season and the Heels need to maintain game-to-game focus.

Game-to-game focus has not been an issue at all lately against the Eagles. UNC has won 11 consecutive meetings with BC by a combined 179 points and leads the all-time series 17-5. Carolina has lost only once in Conte Forum, in 2010 (of course) when Reggie Jackson scored 17 points to lead the Eagles to a 71-67 win and drop the Heels to a 3-9 ACC record.

Luckily for UNC, this has been a much different season than nine years ago. Carolina hasn’t lost away from Chapel Hill since before Christmas and the only true road defeat of the season was on Nov. 28 at Michigan in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. The Heels are shooting for their first perfect ACC road record since 2008, which would put them in prime position for at least a share of the regular season title.

Coach Williams returns to Boston College for the second time since a similar vertigo episode forced him off the sidelines on Feb. 9, 2016. The Heels escaped with a 68-65 victory behind 20 points from Justin Jackson, again under the direction of coach Robinson, to rebound from back-to-back losses on their way to the national title game.