With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the North Carolina men’s basketball team is running out of time to find its rhythm.
After previously winning 10 of their last 12 games, the Tar Heels have dropped two straight and are in the midst of one of the most difficult stretches of the season, with six matchups looming against teams in NCAA Tournament contention.
On Tuesday, UNC will head to Winston-Salem to square off against Wake Forest. The Tar Heels beat the Demon Deacons 88-79 in early January, but will face a series of challenges as they head into their upcoming contest.
Here are three keys for the Tar Heels to pull off a must-win game on the road:
Contain Tyree Appleby
The Demon Deacons boast one of the most dynamic offenses in the nation and rank in the top-20 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Bart Torvik's advanced metric system. At its helm is point guard Tyree Appleby, who leads the team with 18 points and six assists per game.
Since the beginning of the new year, Appleby's usage has reached new heights, as he has played at least 38 minutes in 11 of his past 12 outings. Although Wake Forest recently trudged through a 4-game losing streak, the Florida transfer has remained productive during the stretch, even racking up 27 points in a narrow 75-73 loss at Duke.
Appleby does most of his work in open space on the perimeter and has the green light to shoot at will. He's attempted 293 shots thus far and 43.7 percent of his shots have come from behind the arc.
UNC's Caleb Love was the primary defender on Appleby in the last matchup, and the junior guard held him to an inefficient 5-15 shooting clip. While the Tar Heels have recently struggled to contain lead guards, minimizing Wake Forest's backcourt production will be critical if the game comes down to the wire.
Get Pete Nance going
After shooting over 45 percent from three in his final season at Northwestern, graduate transfer forward Pete Nance was expected to play a key role in drawing defenders away from the basket to allow senior big man Armando Bacot to have room to operate inside. To this point, however, his offensive struggles have disrupted the team's spacing as opponents can clog the lane and force the Tar Heels to beat them from the perimeter.
Since returning from a back injury suffered in the team's last outing against the Demon Deacons, Nance is shooting just 32 percent from the field while averaging almost 35 minutes per game. In UNC's recent loss to Duke, he made just one of his 10 shots and misfired on all five of his triples.
While Nance has shown flashes of solid play, scoring double figures in 10 contests, he hasn't been quite as productive when facing quality opponents. In seven games against teams ranked in the Bart Torvik top 50, his offensive rating has slipped to a pedestrian 81.2, a far cry from his season output of 103.8.
If the Tar Heels want to start clicking, Nance will need to stretch the defense to allow all facets of the offense to open up for the rest of the roster.
Use the bench
Although the Tar Heels have relied heavily on their starters for the majority of the season, it has come at the expense of creating any type of defined roles for the reserves.
North Carolina ranks 358th in bench minutes with just over 19.1 per game. Junior forward Puff Johnson, sophomore guard D'Marco Dunn and first-year guard Seth Trimble have all played in spurts, but their minutes have fluctuated greatly from game to game.
Trimble played the best game of his career against the Demon Deacons, making all four of his shots and matching up against Appleby down the stretch defensively. Although he hasn't seen the floor consistently since that night, he can be plugged into the lineup to provide an immediate spark.
Despite battling knee soreness for most of the year, Johnson has reestablished himself as one of the team's top bench options. If Nance struggles, he could be an immediate fix to space the floor, as he's converting on 36.4 percent of his attempts from downtown.
The Tar Heels will need to earn a few signature victories to boost their postseason resume, and Tuesday should provide an ample opportunity to get started. But if the team continues to struggle, the path to clinching a ticket to the big dance could get much murkier.
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