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UNC vs Bucknell: Three things to watch

The juniors continue to make a major jump in production.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Iowa at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina continues its non-conference schedule on Wednesday night against Bucknell University. After a successful opening night, the Tar Heels will look to continue to build team chemistry, solidify their roles, and bring the “Baby Bigs” up to speed.

The reigning national champions have some work left to do, though, as they will be without senior captain and floor-general Joel Berry II for at least one more game. (*Edit: There have been some quiet rumblings and hints from Coach Williams that Berry could play Wednesday.)

What should you look for when the Bison roll into town?

Perimeter Defense

We all know the story. Someone comes into the Smith Center and lights it up from three point range. It seems like it happens every game. It felt like Barton College and UNC-G could hit from anywhere beyond the stripe.

The Tar Heels allowed Northern Iowa to shoot over 46% from behind the arc. At times, it seemed like the help defense was just a split second behind the pass. This is two-fold: 1. Roy Williams’ defense doesn’t mind giving up an outside shot (it’s main concern is not getting into a half court set or an open inside shot).

2. The freshman (and sophomores) are still learning the correct rotations on defense. When they miss an assignment, a veteran normally notices and rushes to cover. That usually leaves someone wide open for an easy shot. If Cameron Johnson is available, you should see an improvement on the number of times a shot is contested on the perimeter. If he is not, the freshmen (and sophomores) will need to rotate more effectively to minimize the defensive collapses.

Defensive Rotation Collapse

Northern Iowa ran this beautifully. They drop a man into the low post and he slowly fades to the far outside corner. As that is happening, the ball handler penetrates and while the low post player on offense switches sides to cut off his defender (Manley) and open the lane.

At this point, the help defense (Felton in this play) must make a choice to stay with his man on the outside or let the primary defender stay one-on-one. Felton decides to stay on help defense (which isn’t a wrong choice). At the top of the key, however, there is a lazy fake screen.

Brandon Robinson and Kenny Williams look like they have switched. Instead of going out to his man on the perimeter, Robinson has crashed the defense into the ball handler and follows him into the paint, causing a triple team with Felton and Maye.

This leaves two men open on the perimeter for an open shot. The shot could’ve been a pivotal point in the game as it reduced the score to single-digits and may have swung momentum the other direction. This type of collapse cannot continue with regularity into ACC play.

Bucknell comes into the game with Zach Thomas shooting over 50% from three. They have a few players who are sitting around the 40% mark, as well. North Carolina will need to be diligent in their rotations if they want to keep Bucknell from lighting it up beyond the arc. Expect that Coach Williams will have drilled the defensive rotations into their heads and that a missed assignment will be glaringly noticeable (which should keep those to a minimum).

The Junior’s Jam On

Last week, Al wrote about the importance of juniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams and no one expected them to be what moved the proverbial needle for the season (except Williams in Berry’s absence and Maye while the freshman bigs took their lumps).

Kenny Williams and Luke Maye are not going to be the first guys you name when you think of this basketball team. For this Carolina team to even have a chance at making another deep NCAA run, however, these two juniors will be the key.

This week, the juniors are the hot topic of Carolina Basketball and their importance to the success of the team is seemingly growing each day.

Kenny Williams is becoming the “do-it-all” guy. Although he isn’t the primary scorer or ball handler, he can add 10 points and five assists on any given night. Defensively, he is effective at making the other team change their course of action. If one could chart hustle plays, Williams would be a 10-10 guy every game. Look for Williams to continue his scrappy, all-over-the-court type of play against Bucknell. We should still be talking about his reemergence on Thursday morning.

Luke Maye played as a man-possessed against Northern Iowa. Many thought he would have a double-double in the first half. After he passed his career high early in the second half, he just kept scoring! He finished with 26 points on 11-16 shooting including 2-3 from three point range. He also finished with a team high 10 rebounds. If Maye can keep up this type of performance, there’s no reason to doubt that he could be a 15-10 player for the Tar Heels. Look for Maye to hone in that three point shot and continue working on his hands and play-making in the paint. Come Thursday morning, he could find his name on potential All-ACC lists after a second career night.

Roy’s Rotations

Coach Williams is still tinkering with player’s individual roles as they show what they have on the court. We saw Theo Pinson running just about every position. Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton seemed to be the primary ball handlers. Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley took most of the big man minutes while Brandon Huffman played clean-up duty. With the changing roles, we are also seeing many different lineups. At one point during the game we saw a lineup that consisted of Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson, Andrew Platek, Theo Pinson, and Sterling Manley.

Umm...what? I don’t expect to see that variation much more this season...

There are some questions about the starters as well. Does the exceptional game by Williams give him another chance to start against Bucknel? Or is Cameron Johnson automatically reinserted into the starting lineup when he is healthy? Both make a strong case for that starting spot.

Look for almost everyone to get some playing time. Expect that Coach Williams will still mess with his lineup against Bucknell. We will probably see some crazy lineups. Maybe we see something like Woods, Platek, Robinson, Miller, and Huffman at some point. Who knows? Just know that if things get too far gone, Coach Williams will pull his starters for good around the final official timeout.