ACC Basketball

It’s Time for the Tar Heels to Step Up or Shut Up

Michael Thomas Shroyer / USA TODAY Sports

HOW WE GOT HERE:
After stumbling through a tough non-conference schedule, everything seemed to be clicking for the Tar Heels. They were 7-1 in the ACC, only getting tripped up by Notre Dame by one at home. However, the wheels on the victory bus fell off after blowing a second half double-digit lead at Louisville. That defeat triggered a rough February, as Roy Williams’ squad has dropped four of five. Their only win coming against 1-12 Boston College.

Despite losing three starters and a handful of bench players from their 2013-14 team, Georgia Tech actually had a nice start to the season, winning eight of their first 11 (including wins over Georgia and Illinois) and sat at 9-5 entering ACC play. However, they struggled to finish games in conference, winning just three games out of 14. Yet, take away that 29-point thrashing by Virginia, the Yellow Jackets have lost their 10 other ACC games by a total of 38 points (3.8).

FIVE NOT-SO-DEEP THOUGHTS

  • Guard play continues to be the main problem for North Carolina. Against Duke, Quinn Cook had no issue containing Marcus Paige and let’s be honest, Cook isn’t going to win any defensive player awards. Paige was a preseason All-American, but injuries have hampered his development this season. From deep he’s hit just two of his last 15 and he’s really struggled to finish in the lane. He’s coming off back-to-back games where he failed to hit double figures in scoring. Against Duke, Nate Britt was aggressive, attacking the rim, while Berry hit his second three since returning from injury, but Carolina can’t rely on either coming off the bench. Trust me, if either could they’d be starting over freshmen Justin Jackson who has gotten lost in games lately. At this point, if Paige get find his groove, UNC will continue to struggle.
  • On the interior, few can match what North Carolina can deliver. With Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels have three big men who are top-15 in Ken Pom’s Offensive Efficiency rating in ACC play. Johnson in particular has really started to figure things out, as he sits just behind Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis with a 102.2 offensive rating. Since January 21, he’s been unstoppable, hitting 52 of his last 77 shots (around 68% from the floor). While he will post up, Johnson does most of his damage with the ball in his hand, facing the basket. Meeks does his work in the post, using his big body to back his ass in the lane. He’s been hot too, hitting 14 of his last 18 shots, most at the rim, but he can pop out and hit a 12-foot jumper as well.
  • Georgia Tech will counter inside two different ways. They have bulk in the middle with Charles Mitchell and Demarco Cox and they have long, athletic wings who love to attack the glass. In fact, the Yellow Jackets are the one team that can match UNC on the offensive boards. Charles Mitchell is first in ACC play in offensive rebounding percentage (Ken Pom) and they have three players in the top-20 and five total in the top-33 in offensive rebounding %. That’s good rebounding.
  • Like the Tar Heels, the Yellow Jackets don’t get points from deep, but unlike North Carolina, who just recently started to struggle, knocking down threes has been a problem all season long for Brian Gregory’s squad. Worse yet, they just suspended Chris Bolden just as he was starting to drain some threes, as he was arguable the team’s best outside shooter. In their win over Clemson earlier this week (without Bolden), Georgia Tech hit just four threes and benefited from playing an offensively challenged team. However, if they want to beat UNC in Chapel Hill, they are going to need to do what Pittsburgh did in their win over the Tar Heels and hit open threes. It might be time to give Quinton Stephens more playing time since he’s the only real threat from deep.
  • In the end though, it’s time for North Carolina to man up. The Tar Heel faithful can blame poor officiating or bad clock operators all they want, but in the end, this team has struggled because they can’t play defend. Their defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom, hasn’t been below 100 since beating Wake Forest back in late January. Compare that to the ACC’s top team, Virginia, they’ve had a defensive efficiency rating over 100 just once in that same time frame. Yes, the Tar Heels are getting called for a lot of fouls, but guess what, I’ve watched the games, they are fouling a lot. The guards can’t keep opponents out of the lane and while their bigs do get a fair share of blocks because of this, they also get put into tough situations and foul. Against Duke, not one of Brice Johnson’s five fouls came against a Blue Devils’ big man.

FINAL WORD: North Carolina is playing just their second home game in the month of February and even though they have suffered three loses in the Dean Dome, this is the first post-Dean Smith’s death game at home, so the crowd should be pump (they may actually stand). I think both teams will continue to rebound well on the offensive glass, but look for the Tar Heels to use their length and try to keep the Yellow Jackets out of their half-court offense. UNC is not good at forcing turnovers, but Georgia Tech is even worst at holding onto the rock. It will be tight, as all Tech games are, but the Tar Heels will prevail.

WORTHLESS PREDICTION: North Carolina, 74-70

 

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