With its 95-63 win over Marquette on Thursday, the UNC men’s basketball team will face the region’s best team, the defending champion Baylor Bears, on Saturday.
With three leading scorers from that championship team having departed, the Bears look much different than they did a year ago. Still, Baylor was able to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament and enter Saturday’s game with a 27-6 record.
On the other hand, North Carolina picked a great time to play its best basketball of the season.
Having won seven of their last eight games, the Tar Heels are playing with connectivity that’s turned the season around, transforming them from a team on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament to one with a Round of 32 appearance.
“This is the healthiest that this team has been all season, the most together that this team has been all season,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “And I really think that togetherness and the health of this team is built on the confidence that we're building throughout the year.”
Baylor took care of business on Thursday in its opening game against Norfolk State, where they defeated the MEAC Tournament Champions, 85-49.
Securing a berth in the Sweet Sixteen is possible for UNC, though there are key factors that the team must focus on to give itself the best chance of doing so.
Limiting James Akinjo
For the last eight games, North Carolina has held its opponents to 66.5 points per game. This is a five-point improvement from its season-long average of 71.5.
A large portion part of the Tar Heels defensive efforts on Saturday will need to go to Baylor guard James Akinjo. He leads the team in both points and assists, with averages of 13.3 and 5.8, respectively.
Though he’s not the outside shooter that UNC guards are, his playmaking ability has helped the Bears' offense in a number of ways.
“His athleticism, his ability to understand how to make plays not just for himself, but for others,” Davis said. “His quickness, his ability defensively to create plays and create havoc on the defensive end that allows them to be able to get out in transition. He's a fantastic player.”
Senior forward Leaky Black serves as the team’s best perimeter defender — a role he’s embraced all season. He will likely spend a significant amount of time covering Akinjo and disrupting his rhythm.
Minimizing Akinjo’s impact on the game is no small feat, but an important one for UNC to move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Winning the long-range battle
Sophomore guard Caleb Love and graduate forward Brady Manek were lights out from 3-point range against Marquette, accounting for 11 of the team’s 13 makes from downtown.
Baylor also delivered a strong performance from outside while playing against Norfolk State, shooting 11-27 from long range. While this is not the Bears' primary strength, the team will sometimes resort to that shot.
“On the defensive end for us, I just feel like we just got to contain their drive,” Love said. “They're more of a driving team than a shooting team.”
With players that can fill it up from the perimeter, winning the 3-point battle can do wonders for the Tar Heels offense for Saturday's game. Another strong shooting day will allow the team to open up the floor and put pressure on the Bears to keep up on the other end.
“I'd say our best offense comes from our defensive end,” Manek said. “Us getting stops leads to transition points, guys getting open, and I think a big part of our game tomorrow will be how we play defensively.”
Controlling the boards
North Carolina’s M.O. all season long has been crashing the glass.
Anchored by junior forward Armando Bacot, winning the battle on the boards has given UNC a 40.1 rebounding average this season. Overall, the team holds an average 7.9 rebound advantage over opponents.
This season, Baylor lost Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua — one of its best rebounders — due to a knee injury in February. Still, the team finished third in the conference in total rebounding.
Overall, the team has the size to contend with North Carolina, but the Tar Heels do take the upper hand in that area with Bacot and Manek. Keeping the Bears off the boards and securing extra possessions could go a long way for UNC, especially in a close game.
“It's a great matchup of two talented teams that like to get out in transition, they like to get second-chance opportunities, that get after it on the defensive end,” Davis said. “It’ll be a challenge for us, but we're really excited about the opportunity tomorrow morning.”
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