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UNC vs Miami: Three Things to Watch

The Heels travel south to take on the ACC leaders in what should be a real test of their progress

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

After two straight impressive ACC wins, the UNC Tar Heels are riding high, but that’s happened before this season. The challenge for Hubert Davis and his team is keeping up their high level of play, not letting the intensity and focus fade, and really building towards being a team that could be a force in March. They’ll be tested when they go to Coral Gables tomorrow evening to face Miami, who lead the ACC with a 5-1 conference record including a road win against Duke. Here are some things to look out for:

Pick and Roll Defense

Under Jim Larrañaga, Miami’s calling card on offense has been quick guards and athletic bigs running high pick-and-rolls to spread out the defense and get their guards going downhill, requiring sound, intelligent help defense to force bad looks and turnovers. This year’s edition has a few wrinkles, prominently featuring backdoor cuts from wings, but to beat Miami, you have to do a good job defending the point of attack. UNC’s had what can be called an adventurous season defending the pick-and-roll, with Davis changing his scheme multiple times because his earlier coverages weren’t really working. It’s looked better of late; Davis doesn’t have his bigs dropping anymore and they’ve been doing well to alter ballhandlers’ paths, and both Caleb Love and R.J. Davis are fighting harder to get through ball screens instead of necessitating hard switches. Miami may be their toughest test yet, though, as Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong are both very quick and very good scorers at all levels - Wong hasn’t had a great outside shooting year, but he’s been decent in conference play and has a solid track record. Davis, Love, and Leaky Black will have to do an expert job navigating screens and managing to stay in their man’s hip pockets so their team defense doesn’t get sliced up. Miami is a decent shooting team, but they make their hay on the inside. Stop that and this game is much easier.

UNC’s Returnees

UNC got three players back against Georgia Tech: Kerwin Walton and Dawson Garcia returned from Covid-19 protocols, and Puff Johnson saw court time for the first time in nearly a calendar year after recovering from a rash of injuries. Walton and Garcia both got decent shares of minutes and looked expectedly rusty: Walton was 0-2 from deep, while Garcia missed all four of his field goal attempts, many of them close to the basket. They were noticeably active, though, with Walton throwing a couple of nice assists and Garcia corralling 11 rebounds in his 20 minutes. If they can regain their offensive prowess after a few more days of practice, they’ll be real assets to the team — Garcia to give both Armando Bacot and Brady Manek some respite, and Walton being able to possibly help fill in for Anthony Harris on the wing, who missed the game against Georgia Tech for undisclosed reasons and whose return is indeterminate. Johnson, if he’s really healthy and ready to go, potentially adds a dimension that this team doesn’t really have at the forward positions, with his length and shooting stroke — he blocked a three-pointer in his garbage time minutes, and UNC has lacked for blocked shots this year. It’ll be interesting to see how much of all three of them we see on Tuesday.

Attacking the Paint

Offensively and defensively, the strength of this Miami team is in its guard play. Wong, McGusty, and Charlie Moore are the Hurricanes’ three double-figure scorers, and they’re good perimeter defenders though they’re all liable to be taken advantage of on the inside. Swingman Jordan Miller is probably their best overall defender, and starting big man Sam Waardenburg doesn’t offer much resistance at the rim. This is obviously a good opportunity for two-time reigning ACC Player of the Week Armando Bacot to continue to feast inside, but players like Love and Garcia should also look to attack the interior of the Canes’ defense and get some of their interior scoring mojo back — Garcia after missing time, and Love, because as hot as he’s been from outside, he’s been in a bit of a slump scoring on the interior in conference play. Miami seems like a good opportunity for him, especially as a ballhandler, to rediscover some of the scoring craft he was displaying at the beginning of the year.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, y’all.