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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

Carolina returns home in sole possession of first place in the ACC.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at N.C. State Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels return to Chapel Hill tomorrow after a grueling three-game conference road trip to start 2024.

There is much to like about UNC’s start to the year, especially the defensive effort. Tough defense, persistence on offense, and quality minutes from the bench have fueled Carolina’s 4-0 start to league play.

Here are a few things to watch as UNC hosts Syracuse (11-4, 2-2) tomorrow at noon.

Slow Down Judah Mintz

Judah Mintz, 6’ 4” sophomore guard, has continued to improve his play this season after a freshman season in which he averaged just over 16 points per game and was named to the ACC All-Freshman team.

This season, Mintz is the third-leading scorer in the ACC, averaging 18.5 points per game.

Mintz will likely return to the starting lineup for Syracuse after he was withheld from the starting five on Wednesday after violating team rules. In fact, Wednesday’s game was the first time Mintz did not start in all of his previous 46 games with the Orange.

Despite not starting, Mintz scored 10 points in Syracuse’s win over Boston College. It was his seventh-straight game scoring in double-figures, and the 13th time in 15 games this season. Mintz’s offensive production does not come from beyond the arc; he has hit more than two three-pointers in a single game just once this season. However, the Syracuse guard is aggressive in getting to the basket and can finish at the rim. If he does not score, Mintz often draws the foul. He ranks ninth in the nation in free throw attempts, and is hitting 75% of his free throws this season.

Mintz will be a great test for the Carolina defense, as Syracuse will use ball screens to create space for the guard. Slowing Mintz down will require both perimeter and inside defense.

Limit Syracuse’s Stat Line Stuffers

In reviewing Syracuse’s performance through 15 games, it was interesting to see that the Orange currently lead the ACC in steals and blocked shots. Mintz leads the ACC in steals, and teammate Maliq Brown is tied for second. Syracuse is also doing a good job on turnovers, coming in fifth in the conference at a plus-three margin.

These aspects are the types of factors that can shift momentum in a road game. And with the way the Tar Heels are playing right now, the Orange will need these important defensive plays.

However, there are other elements in the stat line where Syracuse struggles.

The Orange are underwater on rebounding margin. Syracuse is fifth in the league in rebounding offense but last in rebounding defense. Their defensive rebounding percentage is second to last in the conference, while they are 12th in offensive rebounding percentage.

This is where Syracuse is in trouble. Carolina is the top rebounding team in the ACC and ranks second in rebounding margin, not to mention Armando Bacot leading the conference in rebounding and Harrison Ingram averaging over 11 rebounds so far in league play.

Finish Strong

A common characteristic over the past three games has been Carolina’s ability to finish the game strong. Against Pitt, Clemson, and NC State, the first halves were competitive. UNC was tied with Clemson at the half and held two-point halftime leads over both Pitt and NC State.

UNC has demonstrated it was a second-half team over the past three games, and road games in tough environments make this even more impressive. Carolina’s second-half performances were driven by the team’s tough defense. For the first time in 25 years, the Tar Heels have kept ACC opponents under 60 points in three straight games.

Pitt had three scoring droughts in the second half, totaling around 10 minutes of game time.

Clemson did not score in the final five minutes of that game.

NC State scored just eight points in the final 10 minutes, leading to the worst field goal percentage (26.9) by the Wolfpack since 1954.

The Tar Heels are fully engaged in team defense, and the quality depth off the bench helps grind opponents down the stretch.

Let’s see if UNC can continue this impressive streak.