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UNC vs. Wake Forest: Three Things to Watch

Can the Tar Heels start 2023 on a positive note?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To say that the ACC is off to a rough start for the Tar Heels is an understatement. Carolina actually has a better record in the Big 10 (2-1) than they do in their home conference (1-2), but the good news is that there are 17 games left in the conference. After a scattershot schedule to start the season that saw them go from playing five games in eleven days to going a week and a half between games, the Tar Heels finally will start to get into a regular rhythm of playing.

The other thing they’ll get to do more of: play at home. The Tar Heels haven’t had a home game since their 100-67 win over The Citadel on December 13th, and that was basically after another three-week stint away from Chapel Hill. Just a weird confluence of starting the ACC on the road, their ACC-Big 10 game being on the road, and playing in three separate neutral court events have kept the travel staff busy. While fans in attendance at MSG and the Spectrum Center will tell you they were as good as home court events, there’s nothing quite like playing at your home gym. Four of the next six are at Roy Williams Court, and that run begins Wednesday against Wake Forest. Here’s three things to watch as 2023 gets underway against the Deacons:

Pete Nance Health

In a lot of ways, the Tar Heels have figured out how to acclimate their new grad transfer into the lineup, and he’s made his presence known. He’s the reason Carolina beat Ohio State with his fadeaway tear drop shot as the buzzer sounded, and he was lighting up the Panthers at the start of the game. Due to this, Pittsburgh had to guard him close, at the top of the key, and he used that pressure to open up Armando Bacot from double-teams, feeding the big man down low.

In the second half, though, Nance left and appeared to be in some discomfort, and he never came back into the game as the Panthers whittled down the Tar Heel lead. The drop down in defense from Nance to D’Marco Dunn was notable, as Dunn was continually targeted, helping the charge from the Panthers. Dunn also was not as good in the offense as Nance, and the Panthers were able to double Bacot more, disrupting the flow. Despite his 22 points, Bacot didn’t touch the ball nearly enough down the stretch, and it arguably was because of Nance being out of the lineup.

In short, the team is better right now when Nance is on the floor. If Nance isn’t ready to go against Wake, the Tar Heels are going to have to figure out how to draw the double-teams better in order to get their big man shots.

A changing of the guard(s)

After fourteen games now, a disturbing trend in terms of Carolina’s guard play has developed. Stat watcher genius Asian Atkinson posted this after the loss on Friday:

Since neither has been a true point guard, there’s always been this weird dynamic with them on the court as to who is driving the action. They found their magic at the end of last season, but so far here in the 22-23 season it’s just been a struggle. The question becomes: does Hubert Davis start playing Seth Tremble, D’Marco Dunn, and Puff Johnson more to break them up or does he hope the pair can recreate their magic as the ACC season wins on? We’ll see.

Putting an opponent away

A common theme has appeared in almost all of the Carolina games this season: letting an opponent back into a game. Multiple times this season the Tar Heels would stretch a lead out and they couldn’t put them away to the point where the end of the game was a breeze. It’s been especially frustrating in their losses to Iowa State and Pitt, where the Heels had leads in the double digits but the opponent came back late to take the win. Even in their win over Michigan, there were several times the Tar Heels seemed to take control but the Wolverines would pop a shot to get back in late.

This style of play is not going to work well in the ACC. To start rebuilding their season, Carolina needs to put an opponent away when they get on a roll. This will be especially important against the Deacons. They have 20+ point losses to Clemson and Rutgers, but they are coming off wins to both Duke and Virginia Tech. In short-if you don’t put them away they are going to fight, and the Tar Heels should have last year’s 22 point loss to them in Winston-Salem in mind as well. We should know pretty quickly what kind of game we are in for.