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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

The quest for five in five continues against the Orange tonight.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-North Carolina vs Virginia Tech Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It is amazing the difference two months can make. Last night, Carolina looked a lot like the team everyone expected them to be against Virginia Tech, leaving little doubt in the 78-56 win over the Hokies. The Tar Heels weren’t tested too hard as Virginia Tech tried to shoot their way into the game and all of the starters were able to sit on the bench at around the three minute mark of the second half.

The test rolls on for Carolina, though, as now they have to wait till at least 9:30 (your annual reminder, the ACC Tournament schedule lies to you about those 7/9 start times) tonight to take on the Syracuse Orange for the second time in less than two weeks. Even though we literally just did this, let’s take a peek at what’s in the spotlight tonight.

In The Zone

First and foremost, before you read any further you should stop and take a look at the film review Jake did following the first win the Saturday before last.

The best Carolina has consistently looked all season has been when they’ve played against the zone. Their biggest win in the ACC, Miami, was when they tried to zone the Tar Heels, and as you can see from that film study, the Tar Heels put on an absolute clinic against the defense in Syracuse.

A big key to that was how well Carolina shot, especially in the second half, when the baskets fell at the rate of 57% overall and an unbelievable 64% from three. They also had 32 of their 92 points in the paint, and then scored 15 points at the line. It was arguably the most confident they had been all season, and it was clear their offense was able to do what it wanted.

Had the original matchup happened back in January, you’d expect Boeheim to make some sort of adjustment for this game. The problem is that he had all of the ACC season to adjust for Carolina this time and they shredded it apart, and now there’s little time for him to come up with something different. In short, in this type of short turnaround environment, this is probably the worst team for Syracuse to play and “surprise” with the zone because Roy knows how to play against it.

One word of caution, though, is Christian Keeling. He had arguably his best game against the Orange, going 7-11 and and 18 points. It was good to see him come back after injuring his ankle last night, but there’s a concern he won’t be 100% tonight and that mid-range jumper is lethal against this defense.

You’ve Bacot to be Kidding Me

Sorry. I don’t know how many more of these I get to do.

As great as the Tar Heels played against the Orange, they did it primarily without one of their big men, Armando Bacot. The freshman only played nine minutes after getting hurt early in the first game, and it took the Tar Heels a little bit of time to adjust without him.

It was the second time this season an ankle injury felled the big fella, and this time it caused him to be the last starter who missed a full game a couple of days later. It turns out that game off may have been exactly what Bacot needed, because in the two games he’s played, he’s looked like the player fans were expecting.

Bacot has mostly kept around the basket against both Duke and Virginia Tech, and his play around there has been more assertive and forceful. He had a couple of great high-low plays with Brooks when he leaked out to the free throw line, and the opportunity is going to be there for him to pick up a ton of rebounds tonight. If he can be a force in addition to the work everyone else has done, then it should save wear and tear on the rest of the team, giving them the juice the need to make a run.

Balancing the Minutes

Once Carolina was up big on the Hokies last night, #UNCTwitter was screaming in all caps at Roy to take the starters out and give the team as much rest as possible. Yours truly, who had seen this team lose in just about every possible way this season, was not that upset that Roy was making sure the game was completely out of hand before sitting the starters.

Cole Anthony and Garrison Brooks both played 34 minutes last night, a concerning number for their ability to play long term if they want to win five in five, but considering their usual work load it was lighter. Everyone else but Brandon Robinson didn’t crack the 30 minute mark, but considering he did this, I don’t think anyone will complain:

Roy showed how he plans to handle the minutes during this tournament. His goal is to win first, and then he might think about resting his starters when there is zero chance that they can give up the lead.

Because be honest, even though most of you wanted Roy to sit the starters earlier, wasn’t there at least a part of you thinking “26 points with four minutes to go isn’t safe?” You can’t win five if you don’t win one.