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UNC at Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

Can the Tar Heels keep the momentum going against the Orange?

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina finally ended its seven-game losing streak by completing a season sweep of NC State on Tuesday. Garrison Brooks put on a monster performance with 30 points and 9 rebounds while Cole Anthony (19 points) and Christian Keeling (16 points) also had big games. There’s more optimism around the team than there’s been in a long time so the question becomes: can they keep the ball rolling? Here are three things to watch this Saturday as the Heels take on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

Can Christian Keeling stay hot?

Keeling’s transformation has been one of the few saving graces of this season. Coming from Charleston Southern as a grad transfer, he was billed as a guy who could score at every level. For the majority of the season, he struggled mightily to consistently knock down shots. However, over the last seven games, Keeling is averaging 12.4 points while shooting 56% from the field and 47% from three.

Though often referred to as the lowest percentage shot in the game, Keeling’s bread and butter has been long mid-range jumpers. He’s been nearly automatic when curling off screens and taking one- or two-dribble pull-ups. The confidence boost he’s received has also escalated other parts of his game. Keeling has improved greatly on the defensive end and he’s been making nice cuts and other intelligent plays off the ball to help the offense flow.

Garrison Brooks and Cole Anthony have long been established as the top scoring options for the Heels, but if they want to keep winning, they need Keeling to keep producing at a high rate.

Facing the Zone

Since Syracuse joined the ACC, the Heels have been one of the best teams at picking apart their vaunted zone. Obviously, this is no ordinary Carolina team. As Roy Williams would say: Theo Pinson and Luke Maye aren’t walking through that door. Pinson’s versatility and passing ability made him one of the best zone killers in America his senior year. And Maye’s silky shooting touch made him a problem to defend anytime he got to that free throw line area.

This year’s team doesn’t have any obvious candidates to stick in the middle of that zone. Leaky Black has got the versatility but his playmaking ability is just not quite there yet. Garrison Brooks is likely the guy who will spend the most time in that space but he’s at his best with his back to the basket.

The good news is the Tar Heels are familiar with the zone as they have actually seen it more than usual this year. The bad news is the only reason for that is because of the team’s inability to consistently knock down shots. If they want a chance to win this one on the road, the Tar Heels must prove they can beat the Orange from the outside.

Free Throws

Free throw shooting has been a big determinant of the outcome of more than a few games for the Heels this season. Poor free throw shooting down the stretch allowed teams such as Duke and Virginia Tech to get back in the game while solid performances from the line helped the Heels close out wins against Oregon and both matchups with NC State.

Garrison Brooks was 14-16 from the charity stripe against the Wolfpack including 8-8 in the final 3:44 of the game. In the six contests prior, he had shot just 32% (9-28) from the line. For someone who spends as much time as he does in the paint, the free throw shooting tends to start and stop with Brooks. When he’s knocking them in, the rest of the team feeds off of him.

Free throw shooting, and first and foremost getting to the line, will be especially important going against the Syracuse zone. The Heels must attack early and often and get into the teeth of the defense. How well they are able to convert the freebies could have a major influence on whether or not they leave the Carrier Dome with a victory.