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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things Learned

A near heart attack on Senior Night! Here’s how the Heels survived Syracuse.

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

Carolina saved themselves a ton of pressure on Saturday by pulling out a heroic win over Syracuse last night. With bubble status attached to them like a radioactive cloud, the Tar Heels simply could not live with another bad home loss, with only a trip to Durham during Coach K’s last game at Cameron left to save their NCAA Tournament hopes. This was a must win.

Because Syracuse is unique in college basketball — strictly adhering to that cursed 2-3 zone all game long — there aren’t too many takeaways on how UNC will take this performance and extrapolate it against Duke, but we did learn a few things.

Manek in the middle

Carolina has busted the Syracuse zone in the past with solid play at the foul line. It has looked different based on the player that manned it. Brice Johnson and Luke Maye comfortably shot jumpers in the middle of the zone. Theo Pinson made great passes and took long steps to get to the rim.

I assumed that the man tasked with foul line duty would be Leaky Black. He’s tall enough to not get swallowed up in the sea of arms, and he’s competent enough passing the ball to make plays. I figured that Armando Bacot would patrol the baseline to sneak some backdoor dunks, and Brady Manek would camp along the three-point line, ready to snipe.

Imagine my surprise to see Manek darting in, around, over, under, and everywhere in between the zone. He led the Heels in scoring with 22 points and got buckets in every way imaginable. A veteran in every sense, Manek found space in the zone for clean dunks, drove hard from the foul line to the charge circle for close-range shots, and even popped out to hit three triples. It was a virtuoso performance that on any other night would have merited a “Player of the Game” nod. Al will write about how another Heel who exploded at the end of the game barely beat Manek to the punch.

Manek will have a tougher task at Duke on Saturday, especially since he has nothing but tough matchups on defense. But let’s celebrate what he did (and can do) offensively, which is save UNC’s bacon over and over again. God, I wish he spent his entire career in Chapel Hill.

Heels almost got Harold Arceneaux’d

I don’t like Syracuse.

Not in the way that I hate Duke or hold my nose up at NC State.

I don’t like their sniveling coach who picks his boogers on national television. I don’t like their boring brand of basketball that slows down a beautiful, running game. I don’t like their cavernous dome, and I haven’t liked any of their uniforms since the classic Carmelo’s.

But I have to give credit when it’s due.

Cole Swider is a name I had never uttered until last night. I was vaguely aware of him from box scores and highlights, I don’t really follow Syracuse until it’s time to hold my breath and watch them play the Heels. I’m more fearful of Buddy Boeheim, just because I know how dangerous he can be.

So imagine my surprise when all of a sudden I’m watching Syracuse’s fourth leading scorer go into Steph Curry mode and score 36 points while hitting 7 of 11 three-pointers, some with Leaky Black or Caleb Love’s hand right in front of his shooting hand!

The fact that he scored 11 more points after picking up his fourth foul with 8+ minutes left in the second half is incredible. Cole Swider... we speak your name.

Puff has something different to offer

In the NC State “Three Things Learned” article on Sunday, I speculated that Puff Johnson could be useful against Syracuse because of his three-point stroke and his ability to rebound in traffic. I got half of the formula right, as Puff went 0-2 from downtown, but did grab two offensive rebounds, and tipped away boards from the Orange to recycle possession.

Puff’s energy jumps off the screen. His long frame closes down passing angles and he’s stronger than his freshman season, demonstrated by his ability to better absorb contact to his chest. He does need to play with more awareness and discipline; he was the unfortunate victim of back-to-back fouls, one of them on the dead ball following his initial foul.

In a game the Heels had to have, Hubert Davis once again went with minimal substitutions. Ignoring Ryan McAdoo, starting on senior night for one night only, Puff Johnson was the only real bench player to see action. Kerwin Walton could have been useful against the zone due to his shooting, but Puff has shown he can at least match Walton’s output, while defending and rebounding better.

It will be interesting to see if Puff is the first player off the bench against Duke, and if he takes up a majority of the minutes. He has certainly laid down a marker to stake a more prominent place in the team going into the ACC Tournament, and next season.

Bonus: Math

Carolina entered last night’s contest ranked 40th in the NET. They are now 22-8, and 14-5 in conference play (currently third in the ACC, but a Miami win over Boston College away from fourth). Beating Duke on Saturday would be great, but it’s not required to get into the tournament. That is, unless the committee uses some form of voodoo math to give UNC the shaft.

With Virginia suffering a hammer blow against Florida State at home, UNC is in the driver’s seat, bubble-wise. If they somehow fall out of the tournament because of “math,” you can expect the Tar Heel Blog staff to take up arms and support the “Jonah Ryan for President” campaign: