After playing only two games from January 17th to the 26th, the North Carolina Tar Heels (19-3, 7-1 ACC) will face a quick turnaround between Thursday night’s contest against the Virginia Tech Hokies and Saturday afternoon’s clash against the Miami Hurricanes (13-4, 3-6). The ACC-leading Heels, ranked 9th in the country, seem to be hitting their stride, especially at home, as we get into the thick of conference play.
The Hurricanes have been a bit of a disappointment this season, starting the season receiving votes for the AP Top 25 before losing consecutive games to Iowa State and Florida, then losing to decent, but not great teams like Syracuse and Wake Forest in conference play. Nevertheless, with Jim Larranaga at the helm, this is still a dangerous team, and as we have learned this season, no game on the road in the ACC can be even remotely taken for granted.
The Heels are coming off their best shooting performance of the season, a win against Virginia Tech in which they shot 14-30 from behind the arc, with six different players finding the range. UNC’s size and length, especially at the wing positions, overwhelmed the Hokies, and they finished the game with a 41-17 rebounding advantage. Kennedy Meeks also feasted on the Hokies’ lack of size, collecting another double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds. In other words, it was a prototypical Carolina win: dominate the inside and use that advantage to open up guard play. Carolina’s last game on the road was a little bit less comfortable, as they squeaked by Boston College in Chestnut Hill.
Miami’s last game was, coincidentally, also a squeaker against Boston College, though theirs was at home. It was a below-average performance on both ends by the Hurricanes, especially on defense, where the ‘Canes rank 28th in the country in Kenpom’s Defensive Efficiency, 17th in points allowed per game, and 30th in FG% Against. To add to this, they are 300th in the country in tempo, which will clash with the Heels’ preferred uptempo pace. The Heels have played with slower teams before, most notably against Wisconsin, but it is always a challenge for UNC to play like they want to against defenses that force them to chew up the shot clock.
It should be noted that the Canes’ numbers have slipped in conference play, and they have been decidedly average compared to the rest of the conference in the same metrics that made them a seemingly elite defense before conference play started. This could be due to a soft non-conference schedule, or just regression to the mean.
The Virginia Tech game plan won’t exactly work against Miami; the Hurricanes are taller and longer, with every starter except for point guard Ja’Quan Newton being at least 6’5’’. Headlining the height department for Miami is freshman forward Dewan Huell at 6’11’’, but he does not exactly have the rebounding production one might expect at that height. Miami does out-rebound its opponents by an average of 6.8 rebounds per game, and, much like is the case with UNC, achieves this through a collaborative effort of guards and forwards. The Heels, the best rebounding team in the country, will nevertheless have their hands full on the boards.
A Miami player to watch out for is guard and scorer Davon Reed, who is shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. UNC’s troubles with prolific scorers like him have almost reached memetic levels, and the Heels’ attempts to stop the trend of career games against them will be something to keep an eye on.
If the Miami team as a whole has a weakness, it is turnovers on both ends of the court. The Hurricanes are both loose with the ball and not very good at forcing their opponents to cough it up, which is unusual for a low-tempo team. The Heels’ active defense may be able to take advantage of turnovers and create transition baskets, which would certainly be one way to break the Miami defense. The Heels have tightened up their turnover problems of late, though without Theo Pinson, one of the team’s best at taking care of the ball, it remains to be seen whether this prudence will hold up. If they do, that is a significant advantage to North Carolina.
Miami wins if:
- They tie or win the rebounding battle
- Their shooters get hot from outside
- They limit UNC’s transition opportunities
UNC wins if:
- They create turnovers on the defensive end
- They continue to rebound their own misses at a high rate
- They take care of the basketball
UNC 88, Miami 70
The game tips off at 1:00 PM and will be televised nationally on CBS. Radio listeners can find it, as always, on the Tar Heel Sports Network.