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Marquette at UNC: Three Things to Watch

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Another emergency scheduled game that the Heels need to improve their resume

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

I guess this year, we’re just taking whatever we can get, huh? Roy Williams said as much after last Wednesday’s win against Northeastern, noting that at the time, UNC had played just 7 home games (including the game that had just finished) out of 20 total, and that was taking a toll on himself and his players. Since then, UNC has played a scheduled game at home against Louisville and won big, and now, after a postponement of a scheduled bout with Boston College, UNC managed to get Marquette, who was planning on being on the East Coast this week anyways for a postponed game against Georgetown, to travel a hundred miles or so south to Chapel Hill. Like last week, the Heels have found a non-conference opponent who’s been better this season than their conference opponent would have been, though that’s not saying much with the 3-13 Eagles being among the worst teams in the Power 6. That said, Marquette hasn’t had a great season; they’re 10-12 and have lost 6 of their last 8 games. Like I alluded to, scheduling this game doesn’t really help the Heels in terms of tournament resume, but this team has shown that it’s liable to get rusty, and is on a bit of a roll right now after two wins by a combined 65 points. Add to that the opportunity to get another home game and it’s not hard to see why the Heels want this game to keep the good vibes going. Anyways, here’s what to look for when the Golden Eagles come to town Wednesday night:

Individual Defense

Looking at Marquette’s stats is kind of weird, and I say that kindly. They don’t seem to move the ball around very well; the team averages just 12.6 assists per game and only 2 players average more than 2 per game. Their slow tempo has something to do with that, but even among slower teams, that’s a very low number. Additionally, according to Hoop-Math, just 34% of their makes at the rim are assisted, meaning that there’s a lot of either individual driving or posting up going on in Steve Wojciechowski’s offense rather than getting good looks inside through ball movement. And don’t get me wrong, teams can be successful like that with the right personnel and spacing! What this primarily means is that to handle Marquette, UNC, particularly on the perimeter, has to be capable of handling their opposition one-on-one, not allowing them to create good shots for themselves, because they aren’t going to beat you with ball movement and system play.

This has been an inconsistent area for the Heels, and there are a few players on the roster, notably R.J. Davis and Kerwin Walton, who have been victimized by a couple of shortcomings on defense by individual brilliance on the other side. They, along with several other teammates will have to step their games up on the defensive side of the ball if UNC is to win this as comfortably as it should, because the flip side to Marquette’s kind of offense is that there’s nowhere to hide as a defender. Either you do your job or you get punished.

Three-Point Shooting

After the Heels went unconscious from three-point range against Duke in Durham, the past three games have been ugly again: Kerwin Walton is 10/20 from deep in that span, and the rest of the team is 5/31. Even without the collective 0-fer against Virginia, that’s a 29% mark, seemingly erasing any of the (very slow) progress that had been made entering this month. Marquette as a team isn’t very good at defending the three-point line; they’re allowing opponents to shoot 36% from deep on the season and have been worse that that recently, allowing close to 40% over their last 10 games. I hesitate to say this could be a get-right game or anything like that, because at this point it’s clear that we probably can’t just depend on this team to be a good shooting team this year, but at least R.J. Davis and Anthony Harris, who have been at least decent shooters before but are slumping at the moment, have a chance to join Walton as spacers from behind the arc, opening things up so that the team’s bigs have more room to not, as McKay so eloquently put it some time ago, miss bunnies.

Keeping On Keeping On

UNC has had three 3-game winning streaks this season: one to open the year, the string of close contests against Miami, Notre Dame, and Syracuse, and then that hopeful end of January against Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Pittsburgh. All three of those streaks, though, had some signs of precarity: The third game of the season was a narrow win over Stanford, the Miami/ND/Syracuse games were all way too close, and even that last stretch was only won by a combined margin of 27. Now, the Heels have dispatched two opponents by a combined margin of over 60, looking much more dominant than they have at any point this season. They still have weaknesses, but they’re now averaging more assists than turnovers and more players — including Walton and Walker Kessler — look comfortable in UNC’s systems both offensive and defensive than they did a month ago. Another big win (the Heels have an 84% chance to win per ESPN’s FPI) would give this team a confidence it sorely needs, and rolling three straight games is a great way to head into the last few games before the postseason. It’d be great to see this team start consistently dominating lesser teams ahead of a game against Florida State and, of course, Senior Night hosting a possibly improved Duke team (ugh). Let’s get it.