Following a dominant 45-point victory over Louisville last Saturday, the North Carolina men’s basketball team could momentarily breathe a sigh of relief as the team inched closer to solidifying an NCAA Tournament berth.
One reason the Tar Heels have been unable to escape the bubble stems from the team’s lack of quality wins. But on Saturday, UNC will have the opportunity to collect a signature victory when it hosts the ACC-leading No. 11 Florida State Seminoles.
Here are three factors to watch in Saturday’s critical matchup.
Win the frontcourt battle
Although North Carolina’s biggest strength this season has been its frontcourt play, Florida State’s big men could not be contained in the most recent clash between these two teams in mid-January.
In an 82-75 FSU victory, starting frontcourt members RaiQuan Gray and Balsa Koprivica combined for 29 points and shot an efficient 9-14 from the field. The Seminoles also controlled the glass, outrebounding the Tar Heels, 30-29.
For UNC to come away with a victory, the Tar Heels must get more than the 27 combined points it received from Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe in the first meeting. Look for Sharpe — who has averaged 13 points and nine rebounds over the last six games — to come out aggressive and make a statement against Florida State’s stellar front line.
Another weapon the Tar Heels must consider is Florida State’s 6-foot-9 first-year, Scottie Barnes, who missed the first matchup with an ankle injury. Barnes — a projected lottery selection in this year’s NBA Draft — has been a difference-maker for the Seminoles this season, averaging 10.1 points and 4.4 assists in just under 25 minutes per game.
While Barnes poses a difficult matchup for anybody that guards him, Leaky Black will likely be assigned the duties of slowing down Florida State’s star. If there is one weakness in Barnes’ game, it would be his 3-point shooting, as he is only knocking down triples at a 25.8 percent clip. If Black forces him to take — and miss — a number of perimeter shots, the Tar Heels will live with the outcome.
Establish Kerwin Walton early
Ever since first-year guard Kerwin Walton was inserted into the starting lineup in late December, UNC’s offense has looked much more like what head coach Roy Williams envisioned at the beginning of the season — improving its floor spacing and playing inside-out basketball.
But despite shooting 45.4 percent from behind the arc this season, Walton was 0-3 in the first half against Marquette on Wednesday and later appeared hesitant to pull the trigger on several open looks.
To get Walton going, expect Williams to call his number early and often, designing plays that will give him some confidence for the remainder of the game.
In the team’s 14 wins this season, Walton is shooting an uber-efficient 29-60 from deep. There might be a correlation between these two variables.
After missing an opportunity against Marquette on Wednesday, Williams will get another crack at reaching the 900-win plateau, a feat accomplished by only four other coaches in the history of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
Although Williams is adamant that the only win he cares about is No. 15 — UNC’s next victory — there has to be some sense of this milestone on his mind.
Last season, Williams surpassed his mentor, Dean Smith, with his 880th victory, and with a few more wins, he will pass Bob Knight to enter the top four. For someone who began his collegiate head coaching journey way back in 1988, this mark represents decades of hard work and dedication to his craft.
But for the time being, perhaps Williams was right about UNC needing that 15th win this season the most, and if it comes against Florida State on Saturday, the postseason picture will become much more clear.