Tuesday night's 85-57 loss against Miami was one of the low points for the North Carolina men’s basketball team this season, as it was embarrassed by a hot Hurricanes team on both offense and defense.
In a year where the ACC is expected to have fewer high-quality NCAA tournament teams than previous years, UNC will need to avoid getting lost in the muck of conference play to secure a bid to the big dance.
On Saturday night, the Tar Heels will try to regain their form against in-state ACC rival Wake Forest and maintain a level of consistency that has escaped the team all season.
The Demon Deacons have exceptional guard play centered around the ACC’s leader in points and assists, Alondes Williams. The graduate transfer is an opportunistic scorer and exceedingly capable of punishing defenses at all three levels while also playing the role of floor general and making timely passes to open teammates.
In addition, UNC will be away from the familiar hardwood of the Dean Smith Center where the team has an undefeated record, which stands in stark contrast to its combined 3-5 record at neutral and away sites. It will take the unified effort of all the Tar Heels to win this game and rescue their season.
Here are some things to watch in Saturday night's critical matchup.
While Williams is a prolific scorer and defensive nightmare, the Tar Heels are one of the few teams in the conference with a player that might be able to slow him down.
Senior Leaky Black has been a defensive standout on a team that desperately lacks good defenders. He has had excellent performances this season, exemplified by holding the ACC’s second-leading scorer, Michael Devoe, to a combined 17 points in two matchups against Georgia Tech.
Williams might be Black’s toughest assignment of the season and the game could easily be decided by the outcome of that matchup. While Black might be the focal point of the team defensive game plan, he will rely on his teammates to minimize Williams' passing ability.
The Tar Heels have a potential ACC Player of the Year on their own roster in junior forward Armando Bacot, the conference's leading rebounder and seventh-leading scorer. Bacot is averaging a double-double for the season, and he has dominated most opposing big men in the paint this season with his impressive footwork and range of post moves.
Bacot will have his work cut out for him, though, since he will be dealing with two Wake Forest starters, Jake LaRavia and Dallas Walton, that have the height and size to slow him down. The matchups between Williams and Black, then Bacot and the Wake Forest frontcourt could likely be where the game is decided, but there are two big wild cards that could also play a role.
Love ‘em, hate ‘em
To say that this Tar Heels team has been inconsistent would be an understatement.
There have been highs like the domination of Michigan and the snapping of a seven-game losing streak against Virginia. As great as those wins have been, the lows like the 29-point loss to Kentucky and 28-point loss to Miami have been just as extreme.
A large part of the team’s up-and-down season has been due to the inconsistency of UNC’s sophomore guards, Caleb Love and RJ Davis.
Following a campaign affected by COVID-19, it was hoped that both of them would make a sophomore leap and help unlock the team's talented roster. The two have shown flashes where they take over games and look like seasoned veterans, but these moments have been paired with low points that resemble their first seasons.
This game and the rest of the Tar Heels’ season might come down to the duo's ability to gel together on court and bring their talent to every matchup. If both players show up on Saturday night, it will be difficult for Wake Forest to win.
But if they both bring the same bad form they had against Miami, no amount of heroics from Bacot and the rest of the team will be able to save the team, and UNC will continue to only look like a fringe March Madness competitor.
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