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Syracuse at North Carolina: Three Things to Watch

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How does this year’s team handle a zone that we have all become intimately familiar with?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, let’s try again: after COVID-19 forced Clemson to postpone UNC’s game against them that was scheduled for Saturday, UNC has found a game to replace it and will host 7-2 Syracuse tonight at 9:00 PM. The Orange have had a pretty successful start to the season, as their record shows, and their stability is remarkable given that head coach Jim Boeheim contracted COVID-19 early and they had several games, including one against UNC planned in December, postponed due to mandatory quarantine after facing an opponent who later had a member test positive (Whew!). But they also haven’t been heavily tested yet, and this will be a good measuring stick for both UNC and Cuse to see where they really are after some wins that could easily look like fool’s gold very quickly. Here’s what to look out for:

Will the shooting sustain itself?

After UNC started the season absolutely woeful from behind the three-point line, the past few games have looked much better, thanks to the improvement of Leaky Black and Andrew Platek and the introduction of Kerwin Walton to the starting lineup, or at least starter-level minutes. The two freshman point guards are still struggling to get anything to go down, but because of the wings’ marksmanship, the team has some hope that this year won’t look like the last: in their last three games, they’ve been 25/63, or 39.7%, from three-point range. It’s fair to question if this is sustainable, though, given both Black and Platek’s historical inaccuracy from deep - it’s hard to tell if this is an actual change or a flash in the pan. Syracuse will be an excellent test for this, as the zone, even as aggressive as the Orange play it, invites shooters to shoot. If the rate keeps up, this game could turn ugly for Boeheim’s team.

At the same time, R.J. Davis and Caleb Love, both billed as at least decent shooters and with the form and free throw percentages to back it up, have been struggling mightily with their shots from outside. History and the eye test both say that their shots will start falling eventually, but as Roy Williams has said, we have to hope that “eventually” means sometime soon, and not “after a full year of college basketball.” This team will become a whole new threat if their jump shots are unlocked, especially if the wing shooting remains even close to where it is now.

Interior (in)efficiency

You can’t get through 5 minutes of a UNC game on TV before hearing about how strong the Heels’ frontcourt is, how deep it is, how the team is really built around the post, etc. It’s obviously for good reason, with how well Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe have played this season, Garrison Brooks’ pedigree, and the flashes that Walker Kessler has shown thus far. And while they’ve been elite rebounding the ball (especially on the offensive boards) and good on defense, which has been most notable, their offensive efficiency has taken a huge downturn in recent games. In their two most recent games, the Heels have shot worse than 35% from the field, and that’s with better than 35% shooting from deep, and none of the four bigs has been at or above .500 in either game. They’ve been papering over it by earning extra possessions with offensive rebounds and playing solid interior defense, but they’ve also only played Notre Dame and Miami, who weren’t really equipped to take advantage. A team like Syracuse, with a little more firepower, might be a little tougher test for the Heels, and they’ll have to turn more possessions into points in addition to offensive rebounds in order to keep this nascent winning streak going.

Defense

Would you believe me if I told you that Kenpom has UNC as the 12th-best defense in the country, adjusted for opponent? Miami was an even worse-shooting team than UNC when the two matched up, and they played even worse than advertised in that department, hitting just 3 out of 16 three-pointers. But a bad shooting team shooting badly isn’t going to fool Kenpom into thinking that a bad defense is actually good — clearly, despite the annual frustrations with Roy Williams’ defensive philosophy that seems to leak drive-and-kick-to-the-corner-for-an-open-3 sequences, this team is doing some things right both on the perimeter and on the inside. Notably, Garrison Brooks, always a good positional defender, finally has some rim protection alongside him in Sharpe, Kessler, and a strengthened Bacot.

Syracuse may be capable of scoring in bunches, but that’s mainly through overwhelming opponents with their defense and turning it into scores; they’re not a really hot-shooting team (32.8% from distance, 44.2% from the field). If UNC’s defense is for real, as the stats seem to show it is, tonight is an excellent opportunity to prove it against a team that can be taken advantage of when the Heels are defending.