North Carolina Readies Itself For ACC Play

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 30th, 2016

North Carolina wrapped up the non-conference portion of its schedule on Wednesday night by dispatching Monmouth, 102-74, at the Dean Smith Center. Now it is on to conference play, as Roy Williams’ squad visits Georgia Tech tomorrow (Noon ET – ACC Network) in the first of two ACC road trips. It has been an interesting season for the Tar Heels to this point. They started off by winning their first eight games, including a dominant performance in the Maui Invitational, that led ESPN’s Jay Bilas, among others, to proclaim North Carolina as the best team in college basketball. Williams’ team has taken a hit since with a road loss at Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge followed by a neutral court defeat to Kentucky in the Game of the Season. Now, on the eve of ACC play, let’s examine the Tar Heels’ prospects going forward.

Justin Jackson has been red-hot lately for North Carolina. (Gerry Broome-AP Photo)

Justin Jackson has been red-hot lately for North Carolina. (Gerry Broome-AP Photo)

The obvious strength of this squad is in the frontcourt. With seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks backed by solid freshman Tony Bradley, North Carolina may have a post trio as good as any in college basketball. Despite losing some of his efficiency with greater usage, Meeks has been outstanding in taking on a primary offensive role as well as on the boards at both ends of the floor. Hicks was expected to make a big splash as a first-time starter and he has delivered on that promise. The concern with him is that he has not performed nearly as well against tough competition — sporting a 101.5 Offensive Rating against the Tar Heels’ best four opponents — versus 118.4 in all games. Junior forward Justin Jackson looks like a potential All-ACC first-teamer right now. He converted 6-of-9 attempts from deep en route to a 28-point night against Monmouth, and unlike Hicks, Jackson has come through in big games — averaging 23.2 PPG against the Tar Heels’ five highest rated foes. Bradley, an important substitute off the bench, may have the most professional potential of the bunch. He currently leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and has displayed great hands and advanced footwork for a youngster.

North Carolina’s backcourt has more question marks than its frontcourt, but its guard corps is hardly a liability so long as Joel Berry stays healthy. As one of the best point guards in the game, Berry’s absences from the lineup because of injury and foul trouble (e.g., at Indiana) have shown that he is the Tar Heels’ most important player. Williams’ other four primary guards — Nate Britt, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson — have all shown flashes of ability but have also wilted against the better teams on the schedule. Against North Carolina’s four toughest opponents, the quartet has combined to average just 10.0 points per game while shooting a chilly 29.8 percent from the floor. The good news for the Tar Heels is that Theo Pinson is reportedly close to returning to the lineup after missing the entire season to this point with a foot injury. Pinson will bring experience and length to the Tar Heels’ perimeter defense and hopefully provide what was missing when Kentucky’s Malik Monk torched North Carolina to the tune of 47 points.

There’s no question that North Carolina has enough talent and experience to contend for the top spot in the ACC. Its first 11 games of the conference slate is very manageable, but the back end of the Tar Heels’ ACC schedule is as daunting an extended stretch of conference games as we can remember. Over the last two weeks of the regular season, Williams’ club will face Duke and Virginia twice each, host Louisville and travel to NC State and Pittsburgh. It’s a good thing that his teams usually hit their stride in February. They’ll need to be at their best to make it through that gauntlet and have a chance to repeat as the ACC regular season champion.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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