This was supposed to be the teams’ second meeting of the season.
Going into January 9th, the Tar Heels had managed to scrape together a couple of wins against teams that’ll finish near the bottom of the ACC. Hopes weren’t very high that the Heels could start a brand new home winning streak against the Tigers. You know, the one that was snapped in the Before Times, during the 2020 Dumpster Fire. Clemson was coming in on a high. They had a dominating win over FSU, and looked like one of the top teams in the country.
The game never happened because of COVID-19 in the Clemson locker room.
The Tar Heels got to skip that game, stay home to host Syracuse, and proceed to win four of their following five games. In the process, the team has gelled quite nicely. Meanwhile, Clemson has fallen apart. After eleven days off, the Tigers would get embarrassed by Virginia and go on to lose four of their last five, their most recent being a nearly 30 point thrashing against a resurgent, but still not very good, Duke team.
The January 9th game may have never happened, but in its absence became a huge turning point for both squads. They are now set to meet tomorrow night, still not knowing if they’ll play that other game in Chapel Hill. Here’s three things to look for tomorrow night:
Which Teams Show Up?
Before their COVID-induced pause, Clemson was averaging about 68 points a game, only losing once. Since the pause, they’ve yet to score above 65 points, and are averaging an anemic 56.6 per game. Their one win in this stretch was by four points over Louisville, and meanwhile they are giving up almost 82 points a game in their four losses. In short, right now they can’t score and they can’t defend.
Meanwhile, Carolina has given up 80 points only once in this five game stretch, against FSU. This is while scoring above 70 in each game, and getting above 80 in three of the five. The Tar Heels haven’t had problems scoring, even though the defense has been up and down at times. Most importantly, the scores are telling you something that you should be seeing with your eyes: the tempo is being pushed by the team on the floor, and they are closer to achieving the type of pace that Roy Williams wants for his squad.
So, will the squads that had been playing before Clemson’s pause show up, or will we see more of the direction each squad is going in? Can Clemson drag down the tempo and frustrate the Heels, or will Carolina, brimming with confidence, continue to thump the Tigers while they are down?
Field Goal Percentage
Even in their lone win, the Tigers have shot the ball horribly. Against Louisvlle, the Tigers shot a dismal 35.8% overall, and just 20% from three. It’s tough to know if that’s been because of good defense or just the inability to find the basket, but either way it’s tough to win games when you can’t make more than one out of every three shots. As we all know, cold teams seem to be able to find the range whenever they see “North Carolina” staring across from them, but the fact that Clemson was thoroughly demolished in an empty Cameron Indoor makes it seem difficult to imagine a change of venue will help.
Meanwhile the Tar Heels are coming off their two best shooting performances of the season, two straight games shooting over 50% against State and Pitt. This includes shooting a torrid 60.7% in the second half against the Panthers. The bulk of the points have been coming inside, just as Roy Williams likes it, but they are still shooting around 30% from outside, just enough to keep other teams honest. More importantly, those outside shots have been coming from the likes of Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton, players you want to be able to launch it.
If recent trends continue, this one may not be close. Should Clemson start to find the range, or indeed any semblance of accuracy, be prepared to sweat it out.
True Road Game
The Tar Heels have not done great on the road this season, as all five of their losses have come away from Chapel Hill. Four of those were true road games. To complicate matters, Clemson is one of the few teams in the conference allowing fans in their stands, and so while it won’t be a packed Littlejohn Stadium tomorrow night, the Tar Heels will have to deal with a crowd and a band pumping up that crowd. The last time they were in that type of environment was in Tallahassee, their last loss.
It’ll be a good test for how much the Tar Heels have improved in recent weeks, and key as it’s likely the most hostile road environment they’ll have the rest of the season. If the young squad can handle the challenges of being on the road: a crowd that can breathe life into a team and influence officials, it should prep them for being able to handle the rest of their schedule and give them a bit of experience for when, far in the future, crowds are back in full force.
This is a very odd season where at most venues, it’s on the teams to provide the atmosphere. Tomorrow night will likely be the last real time UNC has to deal with anything close to a truly hostile environment, and successfully overcoming that would be yet another sign that this team is on pace to get to the levels fans thought they could get to at the start of the year.