The North Carolina men's basketball team's season has officially entered a tipping point.
Entering the final stretch of ACC play, the Tar Heels remain on the bubble of teams to make the NCAA Tournament. They have won against every opponent they’ve played outside Quad 1 besides Pittsburgh. And while they lack a truly many "bad" losses, they also lack any Quad 1 wins.
This lack of a signature win is a serious black mark against the Tar Heels’ tournament chances as Selection Sunday fast approaches.
UNC will have the opportunity to change this on Saturday when it takes on Virginia Tech. A win would go a long way to legitimizing the rest of the season, while a loss could send the team further down in the rankings and compromise its fight for a tournament spot.
The teams last faced each other in January, when the Tar Heels secured a 10-point win in the Dean E. Smith Center and had all five starters score in the double digits. The Hokies, on a six-game winning streak, will be hungry to even up the season matchup and prove themselves to be a tournament team.
Here are a few things the Tar Heels will have to focus on to leave Blacksburg victorious.
Four’s the trouble
Forward Brady Manek has been a positive addition to the team this year. The graduate transfer from Oklahoma is averaging almost 14 points a game. At certain points in the season, such as the 87-67 loss to Duke, Manek has been the sole offensive bright spot on an inconsistent team. His ability to shoot threes well has allowed the team to space the floor and free up junior forward Armando Bacot to put up gaudy numbers in the paint.
But for all his offensive prowess, Manek has been severely lacking in terms of defensive ability this season, leaving opposing teams to take notice. Wake Forest junior forward Jake LaRavia scored a career-high 31 points against UNC last month, primarily by attacking Manek. For a team without high-level defenders to cover up Manek, this could prove to be a fatal flaw against Virginia Tech.
The Hokies have one of the best frontcourts in the ACC, particularly with forwards Keve Aluma and Justyn Mutts. Both Aluma and Mutts are averaging double-digit points this season. Mutts is also an excellent passer for a big man, with the ability to find open lanes for Aluma to score near the basket.
With the Tar Heels' best defender, senior forward Leaky Black, potentially focused on the Hokies' sharp-shooting guard Hunter Cattoor, Manek may find himself on an island at times against Aluma or Mutts. If Manek is not able to hold his ground, the game could become ugly quickly.
1s and 2s
The Tar Heels have a talented guard pair in RJ Davis and Caleb Love, that much is undeniable. Whether that talent has been on full display this season is a different discussion. One possible reason the two have been unable to fully grow into their abilities is the lack of defined roles on the team.
Head coach Hubert Davis’ system relies on Davis and Love for playmaking and facilitating as point guards on the team. While this seems like a good way to take advantage of both players' abilities and natural aggressiveness, there have been times throughout the season where they confused who needs to focus on facilitating teammates and who needs to play the shooting guard role.
If the team is not able to define the roles of each player more clearly, there is a serious chance it could continue to lead to confusion. Look to the guard pair Saturday to see if there is a clear floor general emerging or if the team continues to try to run a two-point guard system.
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