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UNC vs Wake Forest: Three Things to Watch

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Can the Heels keep up their forward progress?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC starts a rare (for this season) two-game in-conference homestand tonight, hosting the Wake Forest Demon Deacons under first-year coach Steve Forbes. Wake hasn’t had the comfiest season, all in all, and have struggled mightily in conference play as they are still in search of Forbes’ first ACC win, but they’ve shown the ability to score (111 points against Delaware State in their first game), defend (holding Virginia to 30% three-point shooting), and they play hard for a team that’s very much at the beginning of a rebuilding process. UNC has been tested in every conference game they’ve played so far, and with most of Wake’s games so far being close as well, that very well could continue tonight. Here are some things to watch:

Ball Movement

This UNC team still hasn’t quite figured out how to hold on to the ball, because turnovers remain an issue (14 against Florida State). What seems to have fixed itself, though (or at least made marked improvement), is the other side of that equation: In each the Heels’ past 5 games, including a couple of losses, over 60% of the team’s field goals have been assisted, including what I think was the team’s best mark so far at 18/27, or over 70%, in the loss to Florida State. There’s been some hand-wringing about both of the team’s primary point guards not putting up very pretty distribution numbers, and it’s not entirely unwarranted, but both from watching the games and seeing the statistics, it’s clear that they’re starting to understand the offense, and the ball is moving in a manner that is at least starting to approximate Carolina basketball.

It’s been rare the past several years that Roy Williams has a point guard be the actual primary assist-getter on the team, with wings carrying a lot of responsibility for post entries and big-big passing having been a strength with Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, and now Armando Bacot and Sharpe. So I don’t think tracking the assist numbers of Caleb Love and R.J. Davis is a particularly useful way to judge how they’re doing as directors of UNC’s offense, and while a 0:4 A/TO like Love’s against FSU is obviously not great, just because he wasn’t making the pass to the score doesn’t mean he, or Davis for that matter, was holding the offense back. The next step, of course, is limiting turnovers and creating plays rather than just playing in structure, and that comes with increasing passing finesse and speed against ACC defenders. We’ll look to see some of that against an aggressive, but not as talented, Wake Forest defense.

Anthony Harris

After months of anticipation, redshirt freshman shooting guard Anthony Harris somehow managed to not disappoint, and possibly even exceed expectations, in his debut against Florida State. In 9 minutes of action, he seemingly did everything this team needed: played hounding on-ball defense, attacked in the lane and made the right pass when help arrived (his 3 assists were unexpected; he hadn’t been much of a playmaker last year), made a smart cut for his first points, and followed it up with a rhythm three from the corner. His conditioning, not to mention his mental adjustment to playing competitive basketball after 6 games probably still isn’t completely back yet, so I don’t expect to see him start yet, or play 20 minutes or something like that in this game after not getting extended second-half minutes in an FSU game where he was sorely needed in the back stretch. Coach Williams was clearly reluctant to put him in at all based on those things, given that he only came in for the second half and was clearly so good on the court. It will be interesting to see how he works back into the lineup, balancing his own readiness with the team’s need for all the things he brings.

It will also be interesting to see how sustainable his production is. To some degree, this level of ultra-glue guy is just who Harris is — but through his 6 games last year and limited action against Florida State, his on/off numbers have been downright absurd. Some regression is probably expected, but the fact that he was able to carry that level of impact over to this season post-injury is already impressive. Maybe he just makes a team that much better. Even staying pretty close to that would be monumental.

A Big Win?

This is the first of UNC’s conference games that hasn’t been set to be a photo finish, based on betting lines and win probabilities. So far in ACC play, UNC’s pretty much played around Vegas lines, with every one of their games so far having been decided by 7 or fewer points. Against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill, the Heels are favored by 11 points, or an unprecedented 4 possessions. There’s some opportunity for this team to win big against conference opposition, which, as I’ve wrote about before, is going to be key to this team rounding into form come February and March. The Heels are currently trending up, a loss to a great team notwithstanding, and have the opportunity to really vault themselves into the thick of the ACC race in a year where nobody seems to really want to take the league by the horns. Winning big in a game where they are clearly the superior team, even though Wake has been solid against decent opposition, would be a key step in doing so, and it’s not an opportunity that’s going to come around too often after this. If the Heels are going to be contenders of any kind this season, they have to take this chance and run with it, and hopefully get a confidence and momentum boost as they head into the meat of their schedule.