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UNC vs. Pitt: Three Things to Watch

We ain’t scared of Pitt. Right?

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina looks to keep the good vibes rolling when Pitt visits the Smith Center tomorrow night. The 10-16 Panthers (5-10 in ACC play) are on a hot streak of sorts. After losing four conference games in a row (including a home-and-away weekend series against Virginia Tech two weeks ago by five and 27 points, respectively), Pitt has gotten back to winning ways, defeating Florida State in Tallahassee and NC State at home. Granted, Florida State is in the midst of a full blown medical crisis injury-wise, and NC State is hot garbage.

But just like we said after the Clemson win last week, you don’t turn your nose up at victory. Here are three things to watch for the Carolina/Pitt game.

Can we take a breath?

If we look back to the Boston College game on January 2nd when ACC play began in earnest (and when Dawson Garcia got concussed early in the game), four of Carolina’s starters are averaging 30+ minutes per game (Leaky Black is close at 28.7 mpg). As Hubert Davis prepares the team for the final stretch of conference play and the ACC Tournament, he’ll want to 1.) save some of his starters’ legs, especially in the ACCT when games will be on back-to-back nights, and 2.) keep providing the bench with opportunities to grow.

Kerwin Walton’s drop in production has been a cause for concern, but with spring around the corner, his game has begun to blossom. Against Florida State, he looked to shoot perimeter jumpers quickly like he did last season, and he has been impressive putting the ball on the floor, showing off a nice behind-the-back dribble before drilling a midrange jumper. Walton’s nine points against FSU were his most in ACC play.

Dontrez Styles was a revelation against the Seminoles, where his bounce and quick feet made him a pest on defense and the boards, and his quickness on the baseline for a dunk showed an interesting possibility for UNC to use against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone on Senior Night.

UNC will greatly benefit from pole-axing Pitt in the first half, and letting the subs get heavy minutes in the second half.

Pitt’s Scoring Balance

Pitt gets tremendously balanced scoring with four starters averaging at least 10 ppg. Forward John Hugley is the leading scorer and rebounder, but he is at a size disadvantage to Armando Bacot. Depending on how Hubert Davis decides to employ Leaky Black, it will be interesting to see how the Tar Heels try to limit the Pitt attack. As a team, the Panthers shoot a low 32.1% from the 3-point line, so Carolina could even experiment with some zone looks with an eye towards the Duke away game.

As long as UNC doesn’t have their worst defensive performance of the season, Pitt shouldn’t be so dangerous that they run amok in the Dean Dome on a scoring rumpus. Their highest output in ACC play this season was 75 points… in a 16-point loss to Wake Forest. The Heels have eclipsed that total eight times in ACC play, and just missed out on nine in an emphatic 74-58 win over Virginia.

Energy in the building

Wednesday night. Late tip-off. Pitt dragging their tired ass to Chapel Hill.

All of these factors seem to point towards a sleepy Smith Center. The Heels have been in some pretty high-energy contests in the past couple of weeks. They beat up NC State in front of Michael Jordan and the 1982 championship team. They beat Louisville in a “lively” affair that saw Cardinal fans throw objects on the floor while Caleb Love tried to shoot his technical foul free throws. They were in an emotional game against Duke, Coach K’s last one in the Dean Dome. They won a helter-skelter game at Clemson, hitting the winning shot with three seconds left. And their punishment of a washed Seminole squad got the weekend crowd roaring early in that contest.

Carolina won’t have any of that kind of juice leading up to the 8pm tip against Pitt. How will the Heels respond to a flatter, and likely emptier, home crowd? Can they generate their own energy to play high-intensity defense and manufacture turnovers and fast break points? The only real threat that this Panthers team poses is if UNC plays flat and lets them get off to a hot shooting night. Expect Hubert Davis to be extremely engaged to make sure the Heels get to top gear quickly, and keep their foot on the gas.