Everybody said that the six-game stretch from February 13th-March 4th was going to be a crazy one for Syracuse and it’s already lived up to the hype. An ugly loss to a tough NC State team, a blowout win over then-No. 18 Louisville and a heartbreaking loss to No. 1 Duke in front of a record crowd have gotten the gauntlet started for SU and it certainly doesn’t get any easier on Tuesday when the Orange make the trip down to Chapel Hill to take on No. 5 North Carolina at the Dean Dome.
The Tar Heels may well be the hottest team in the country at the moment and have won 10 of their last 11 games, including blowout wins over Duke, NC State and Virginia Tech. The Orange always have their struggles against UNC (the Tar Heels lead the all-time series 11-4 and have won 7 in a row against the ‘Cuse) but they’re probably getting UNC at its absolute peak and there’s a lot to look out for.
Pace, Pace and More Pace
If it’s known for anything, North Carolina is known for wanting to go fast all the time. In almost any given season they are one of the best transition teams in the country and almost always score a ton of points. That’s no different this season. The Tar Heels check in as the third-best scoring team in the country at 87.1 points per game and have three players averaging at least 15 points a pop. They’re also sixth in the country in possessions per game, so this team is going to want to get up and down and fill the basket. Clearly that presents a lot of issues for SU. The Orange score just 69.8 points a game which ranks 263rd in the country. This is not an SU team that is built to play in shootouts and compete in games that run up the score. They’re going to have to find a way to limit UNC in transition and somehow keep them below their typical scoring output, otherwise this game could get ugly and fast.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Everything Carolina Blue
Sure this is an old wedding adage, but it actually works perfectly for this North Carolina team. There are six players for UNC averaging at least eight points per game and they’re the perfect blend of youth and experience. Leading scorer Cameron Johnson (16.7 ppg, .473 3PT%) is a fifth-year senior and graduate student who has played his last two seasons with UNC after transferring from Pitt at the beginning of last season (there’s your something borrowed). He teams up with defending ACC Player of the Week senior Luke Maye (15.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and senior guard Kenny Williams (8.5 ppg) as the upperclassmen in Carolina’s typical starting lineup. The young blood in the starting five is made up by freshman PG Coby White (15.2 ppg) and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks (8.3 ppg). Rounding out the outstanding group of six that UNC brings to the table is freshman forward Nassir Little (9.7 ppg, .500 FG%). Little was ranked as the No. 3 recruit in the 2018 class by 247sports and is projected to be a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft by ESPN. Needless to say, this UNC roster is once again loaded, but unlike a team like Duke, it’s not just all freshmen carrying the load. The Tar Heels are the perfect blend of veteran leadership and talented youth and that’s a combination that is going to be very tough to beat.
If pace is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of North Carolina, rebounding is a very close second. It seems like every season, the Tar Heels rank near the top of the country in crashing the class and the 2018-19 season has been no different. UNC is tops in the country in team rebounds per game at 42.8, which is just a tick higher than arch-rival Duke which clocks in at 42.2. The Blue Devils absolutely manhandled Syracuse on the boards in the second half of Saturday’s loss (27-16 margin) and Jim Boeheim said after the game that his team just isn’t a great rebounding team. Playing the zone is always a part of that, but that narrative is going to have turn around against UNC because the Tar Heels will feast on the offensive and defensive glass if Syracuse lets them and that could spell disaster for SU’s chances at a big-time upset.