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UNC vs Virginia: Three Things to Watch

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Two fallen titans of the ACC battle to see who’s worse

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

There is one question hanging over the heads of every UNC Basketball fan ahead of their hosting of Virginia on Saturday: Was the Wake Forest game a symptom of Duke hangover that should be cured after a week, or was it a sign that this team is, after showing some promise, irrecovably broken? I might have been a smidge reactionary in my Three Things Learned after the game, where I pointed out some quotes about not listening to coaching that could have been due to shell-shock as much as anything else. But given how this season’s gone, it wouldn’t be surprising if I were right. Anyways, here’s what to watch for when the Wahoos come to town:

What will the offense look like?

There’s no way around it: this UNC team has one of the lowest assist rates we’ve seen for a Roy Williams team. Part of it is a lack of team chemistry/trust in each other, part of it is lacking wing play in a system that requires good entry passes from the wings for its halfcourt offense to work, and part of it is just plain not being able to make catch-and-shoot jumpers - Roy Williams noted after the Boston College game, for example, that Cole Anthony had 6 assists ruined by players just not making shots they should have made. And while this team’s offense is torturous as is when it’s going dribble-heavy and forcing up iso shots, Virginia’s patented packline has the potential to make it even worse without adequate preparation. This team’s already seen UVA once, and didn’t even crack 50 points in Charlottesville. These Cavaliers have fallen off quite a bit since then, but they’re still a defensive force. On the other hand, the last time UNC beat UVA, back in 2017 with the eventual national championship team, the blueprint looked a lot like what we have now, just with much less talent on both sides of the equation. Justin Jackson got every shot he wanted, distributed when necessary, and finished with 20 points and six assists on 14 shots. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks combined to go 10-17 from the floor for 23 points, and the team got spot contributions from everybody else, including Joel Berry. Anthony’s not a wing player, but he can funnel the offense the same way Jackson did for that team. So maybe this team’s offensive inability to play Carolina basketball for 40 minutes could be a blessing against a team that has given this program the blues lately.

Recoveries/Returns from Injury

Garrison Brooks played against Wake Forest under great duress after his cornea had been scratched (for the third time this season!!!) against Duke. His minutes were limited and his play was clearly affected. We haven’t seen him like that despite similar injuries earlier this season, so I’m blaming a short turnaround time rather than a particularly awful injury. With any luck, he’ll be back to his old self for this game, but his performance against Wake has to give you pause. Jeremiah Francis, meanwhile, has been in and out of the lineup since his initial return from injury, with his status having been “out” for the last two games. Will the extended time off help him give the Heels some useful minutes at point guard? Leaky Black’s recently rediscovered passing touch might serve better at the wing, where he can throw in the entry passes that have been lacking and also guard people more suited to his size, than at the point, where he struggles both handling the ball against small guards and keeping smaller guys in front of him. Francis playing ~15 minutes would be a boon for this squad.

Christian Keeling’s Momentum

As a grad transfer from Charleston Southern, Christian Keeling was hailed as a three-level scorer: a midrange threat, a 38% three-point shooter, and somebody who can take on defenders to the basket. Until recently, he hadn’t been any of those things, as the jump in competition had just seemed to be too much for him to translate his skills on the court. I’m still not a total buyer on his somewhat disjointed jumper mechanics, but there’s no arguing the fact that his midrange game has been pretty lethal lately. In the last three games, he’s been 11/17 from two-point range with pretty few at-the-basket attempts, and scored in double figures in all three. Even his three-pointer is starting to fall; in that same stretch he’s 3/7 (about 42%) from beyond the arc. He’s shooting with a ton more confidence and it’s bleeding into other parts of his game, including his defense:

Again, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the brunt of this season’s failures lie in the hands of inadequate wing play. Brandon Robinson has been the team’s lone good shooter but his passing has seriously regressed; Leaky Black has only just started to find comfort in a role after struggling to balance playing on- and off-ball; Andrew Platek’s resurgence hasn’t come in tandem with either of them; and Keeling’s just had a tough timea altogether. If Keeling can maintain a high level of play and give UNC the ability to play two capable wings for 40 minutes by rotating those three with spot time for Anthony as Black plays the point, this team could look a lot different and at least give everybody who’s returning an idea of what a Carolina team can look like.