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UNC vs. Portland: Three Things to Watch

Carolina opens the Phil Knight Invitational against the Pilots.

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

Nothing says Thanksgiving like a little Carolina Basketball.

At 1 PM on Thursday, Carolina will tip off their side of the Phil Knight Invitational, a return to the event that was thought to be a “one time” only idea that celebrated Nike’s founder. Turns out when you have an event that makes a lot of money, you’re going to keep doing the event.

The event marks a significant ramp up in their schedule, as the Tar Heels will play four games in a week before traveling to Blacksburg to open up ACC play. To say the least, this game is going to be more about what’s down the road than what’s in front of them, but what’s in front of them could easily be a problem. Let’s check out three things to watch as you enjoy the appetizer of basketball before your meal.

Caleb Love for Three

Credit goes to Gary Marbury on Twitter, as he’s pulled out just how rough a start from behind the arc it’s been for Caleb to start the season:

Caleb has a history of starting out slow every season, and then he finds his spots where he starts to heat up. The big difference, though, is that this year the missing three-point shot hasn’t affected the rest of his game. Remove his 5-27 shooting from deep, and he’s 19-30 with his two point shots, or a healthy 63%. He’s also leading the team in assists with 13, and he’s been more inclined to drive to the basket. That said, at some point the missing three-point shot has to start falling just so the rest of his game doesn’t start to fail. You’d have to think to take down this title, they’ll need a strong performance behind the arc for Love. This game may be the best chance he has to get right before they play the tougher competition, where he may feel more pressure to get his shot right and it has a bigger chance of costing the team.

Bacot Back?

Portland’s leading rebounder is Moses Wood, who has 38. He’s three inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Bacot, so on paper this looks like another mismatch that Bacot should feast on like he did against James Madison. It’s not a coincidence that Carolina’s best halves of basketball — the second against College of Charleston and the first against James Madison — came when Bacot was his strongest. When he decided to take over, these two squads had no answer and Carolina was off and rolling.

The question is whether or not Bacot will be able to do this again, or if Portland will do what they can to limit him and take their chances with the guards. The Pilots average 37.2 rebounds a game, barely less than Carolina’s 38.5, and likely the game against JMU is skewing this result. If we get the same Bacot that we got last Sunday, this game is likely over early. If not? It may look a lot like the other seven plus halves of Tar Heel basketball so far.

The Big Picture

As mentioned, the Tar Heels have four games from Thursday to Wednesday, and a total of five in eleven days. This is after playing at most two games a week since the start of the season. It’s imperative that if the Tar Heels don’t want to get worn down, that the bench that has not been that impressive so far actually plays a significant role.

All five starters for Carolina are averaging well over 30 minutes, and no one else is averaging over 14. We saw what happened last March when you try to play a long stretch of basketball with a thin lineup, and with a schedule that sees them play Georgia Tech, Ohio State, and Michigan later in December before the full grind of the ACC season rolls on, this stretch will be important in both making sure the Tar Heels are good for the long haul, as well as giving some guys like Seth Tremble, Tyler Nickel, DeMarco Dunn, Dontrez Styles, and Puff Johnson the opportunity to play meaningful minutes that will pay off down the road.

Ideally, Carolina can do what they haven’t so far this season and step on the thread of an inferior team early, allowing them to sit the starters and get ready for Friday’s contest. If the starters play more than 30 minutes on Friday, it’s going to be a long stretch where they have a real shot of playing one game completely worn out.