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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

Heels seek consistency to close out the regular season

Marquette v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Just when you thought that Carolina was down and out after a roller coaster week of wins (brutal beatdown of Louisville) and losses (head-scratching loss to Marquette), the Heels found some much needed fortitude and overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to win 78-70 against the nation’s 11th-ranked team. The thrilling victory, Roy Williams’ 900th as a head coach, was UNC’s second Quad 1 win of the season. An away trip to Syracuse presents a chance to capture a third.

Carolina is usually comfortable playing against the Orange and their 2-3 zone. In their first meeting this season in Chapel Hill, Syracuse did not have the size needed to compete with Carolina’s bigs as UNC came away with a +17 rebounding margin. Part of that is the inherent weakness of zone defense, but Guerrier and Dolezaj piled up fouls as Brooks and Bacot scored 16 and 15 points, respectively.

More of the same is required to get the win. Bad news for Syracuse; Sharpe and Kessler are getting more comfortable and present even more size mismatches than the starting frontcourt. Here are three things to watch for Monday night’s game at the Carrier Dome:

Brooks and Bacot back to their best

Walker Kessler was the man of the hour against Florida State. The Tar Heels needed every last squeeze of juice they got out of the freshman center, because the rest of Carolina’s vaunted frontcourt didn’t show up. While Kessler was scoring a career-high 20 points on 9-10 shooting, the other bigs put up 6 (Bacot), 4 (Brooks), and 3 (Sharpe) points. Day’Ron didn’t make a single field goal, all of his points came from the line!

Fortunately for UNC, Syracuse won’t bother them the way the Seminoles do. The Orange lacks Florida State’s size and depth, and don’t aggressively challenge post entries. Carolina should have what their bigs crave; space and time. The zone will collapse, so it’s important that the Heels continue to demonstrate sound high-low passing and movement along the baseline. But expect the scoring figures for the posts, especially Brooks and Bacot, to tick up, while Kessler’s likely goes down.

3-point shooting in the Dome

In the January win against Syracuse in the Dean Dome, Carolina shot a dismal 20.8% from 3-point range. Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton both shot 1-for-5. Things could get even worse in the Carrier Dome and its weird sight-lines. The Tar Heels must resist the urge to launch threes at will against Syracuse, especially early in the shot clock.

In the loss to Marquette, Kerwin Walton went 2-for-7 from three and after missing several shots in a row, passed on some open looks that he normally wouldn’t hesitate shooting. This speaks to self-confidence, so it’s important that his first couple of attempts come off of clean looks that he doesn’t have to rush. If Kerwin gets the first couple to go in, it could be a long night for the Orange.

Don’t look ahead to Duke

This Carolina team has proven to be consistently inconsistent. It would not surprise any Tar Heel fan to see this team follow a season-defining triumph against Florida State with an out-of-nowhere loss to a Syracuse team they should beat.

If Carolina wants to grow as a team, they need to win the games they’re expected to win. We’re well past the point of the season where Roy Williams likes to say there are no more freshmen. We should be past the point of freshman naivety. It’s time for the Tar Heels to take care of business and sweep Syracuse aside.

Once that job is done, then all focus and energy can be put towards doing the Lord’s work; beating Duke and potentially killing any chance they have at an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.