All year long, North Carolina’s weaknesses haven’t been a secret — far from it.
The Tar Heels are second in the country in points at 87.5 per game. They shoot 38.6 percent as a team from 3-point range, and boast three players who average points in double digits, plus three more who average at least 8.2 points.
But on the other side of the floor, North Carolina hasn’t been as impressive. In conference play, the Tar Heels have allowed opponents to shoot 42.9 percent from the field and are allowing 73.5 points per game. UNC has been comfortably outscoring most of its opponents, but the trend of overly generous defense is worrying.
And perhaps the biggest cause for concern in this game is a simple one: Who is guarding Zion Williamson?
If you’re reading this, you likely don’t need a rehash of Williamson’s otherworldly athletic abilities. He’s a Mack truck with a V8 engine, an evolutionary Charles Barkley with bounce. Unfortunately, UNC doesn’t also happen to have a once in a generation athlete whose dunks singlehandedly inspire entire SportsCenter Top 10’s. What is head coach Roy Williams to do?
North Carolina’s taller players – Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, even forward Cameron Johnson – don’t have the foot speed to keep up with the first-year phenom, while any Tar Heel guard would be hopelessly overmatched trying to defend Williamson in the post. If any player in college basketball epitomizes the phrase “matchup nightmare,” it’s him.
First-year wing Nassir Little is the only Tar Heel with a prayer of containing Williamson. Though he exited early against Virginia last Monday with an ankle injury, he should be good to go on Wednesday after playing 11 minutes against Wake Forest. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has comparable size and speed to keep pace with Williamson, and could force Zion into settling for outside jumpers, where he is shooting 29.2 percent from 3-point range. From there, you play the odds.
Another concern for the Tar Heels, this game and all season, is turnovers. Again, when North Carolina gets a shot off, they are among the best in the country. But 13.8 turnovers per game have hurt the Tar Heels, nearly costing them a win at N.C. State, among others.
Meanwhile, Duke forces 15.9 turnovers per game. The Blue Devils and their fans will relish any fast-break opportunities they are given; in the hostile environment that is Cameron Indoor Stadium, it’s especially crucial that North Carolina limits live-ball turnovers.
Should the Tar Heels find an answer for Williamson — no small feat, to say the least — and limit needless turnovers, they will give themselves the best chance to draw first blood against the Blue Devils.
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