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UNC Basketball vs NC State: Three Things to Watch

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Turnovers. Ball movement. Contrasting styles.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Kentucky Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina makes the short trip to Raleigh on Tuesday to take on hated rivals begin their ACC season against NC State. As we all know, Roy Williams is 37-4 against the Wolfpack, and the Heels have won the last five games in the series. That’s actually the third longest win streak against NC State in the Roy Williams era. UNC won six in a row from 2004-2007 when Williams first returned home, had a hiccup in February of 2007, and promptly rattled off 13 more victories from February 21, 2007 to March 10, 2012 (The Kendall Marshall game).

Also, a quick acknowledgment. In typical NC State fashion, they haven’t played the toughest slate thus far. Sure, COVID is a legitimate factor this season, so I won’t make that the running joke it has been in the past and will be in the future. Just realize the numbers used for the remainder of this analysis came in five games against Charleston Southern (284th), North Florida (296th), UMass-Lowell (226th), St. Louis (41st), and Campbell (252nd).

They did not beat St. Louis. UMass-Lowell is their best win.

So, with that little math lesson complete, here are three things to watch tomorrow night.

(Note: Both seniors Braxton Beverly (G) and D.J. Funderburk (F/C) missed the past two games due to COVID protocols. Their availability is unknown).

Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers

I wanted to stay away from this topic. It’s been dissected all season and it’s a known problem with the Heels, despite only coughing up 11 turnovers against Kentucky. The Wildcats’ defense, though, is as cohesive as two sticks of butter in a frying pan. Kentucky is actually 247th in the nation in creating turnovers.

NC State is a different case. According to KenPom, they’re forcing a turnover on 30.3% of defensive possessions. North Carolina, meanwhile, is turning the ball over on 21.8% of their possessions, which isn’t exactly...good. In fact, if the season ended today, that would be the second worse turnover percentage in Roy’s tenure.

The Wolfpack will try and pressure UNC’s inconsistent backcourt into poor decisions and extra possessions. Playing at a faster tempo than the Heels and relying on a more experienced, smaller, guard-oriented lineup (more on this below), State is a dangerous opening ACC opponent. Caleb Love and RJ Davis have to protect the ball and get it to the big men in advantageous positions.

Contrast in Styles

Sophomore Manny Bates (6-11, 230) is the only State player over 6-7 averaging double-digit points at 10.2 per game. Senior D.J. Funderburk is the only other player over 6-7, along with Bates, averaging double-digit minutes. They, uh, don’t have much going on inside unless you count inside-outside threat 6-7 junior forward Jericole Hellems (13.4 points, 46.2% from deep).

The perimeter, however, buoys their production. They “only” average 37.7% from deep on 21.2 attempts per game (that’s 8 made threes per game), but get 56.7% of their production inside the arc. Considering their lack of size post, this means their guards get into the lane and create, or they score in transition (see Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers).

Their perimeter is a mix of youth and experience with senior Devon Daniels (16.2 ppg) and freshman Cam Hayes (11.3 ppg), leading the way. Senior Braxton Beverly chips in 8.2 ppg on 50% shooting from three. Simply put, UNC’s perimeter troubles will be tested again.

North Carolina is decidedly none of that. They score slightly more in the paint (58.7% of total production), and make up for their perimeter deficiencies by getting to the foul line. Despite their shooting struggles, free throws still account for almost 25% of UNC’s total points this season. UNC has the ability to hammer you into submission, even if they don’t always have the willingness.

We’ve seen this movie before. If NC State gets hot early, it’ll be a dog fight. If UNC handles their business on the defensive end, an average offensive game will lead to another blowout.

Inside-Outside Ball Movement

UNC’s offense is difficult, demanding, and unrelenting. Those issues are exacerbated by adding six freshmen to the roster and letting two of them figure out to run the team on the fly. Inconsistency was expected with two ball-dominant guards trying to coexist. So far, three things are really stopping any sort of consistent flow.

The guards are hesitating to feed the post, the post players are too slow to kick the ball back out, and/or the ball isn’t swinging/skipping across the court and forcing the defense to move. It’s not just one problem and they are all connected. These issues are partially why UNC is only assisting on 49.2% of their made field goals.

No guard wants to feed a black hole, even one as productive as UNC’s train of big men. And no big man wants to give up a mismatch, which UNC’s post players often find themselves with. It’s also hard to trust a guard rotation that won’t shoot, can’t shoot, or is going to turn the ball over. A compromise is necessary.

Quicker recognition by UNC’s big men to kick the ball back out, or skip it to the weak side, keeps the defense moving. (Kennedy Meeks was a master at this in 2017). This provides passing/driving lanes for the guards to swing the ball around the arc and into the lane before the defense can recover. UNC’s guards must capitalize on an unsettled defense and exploit these openings.

For much of the season, they have not.

In theory, that opens up the perimeter scoring so the big men don’t feel pressure to do it all by themselves. In return, UNC sees more favorable match-ups down low. A push-pull effect manifests, instead of this odd tug-of-war that plays out in five minute increments between the two position groups.

NC State provides a perfect time to get the offense in sync. Their lack of size means they have to double team and swarm the post if they don’t want to give up 50 points in the paint. Their smaller squad will be fast and pesky, trying to control the tempo on defense. UNC has to decisively move the ball, keep the dribbling to a minimum, and exploit any passing lanes as soon as they appear.

If they do that, Christmas will come early for the Heels.