North Carolina doesn't have many weaknesses, but its most glaring hole might be one Syracuse can exploit. The Tar Heels are allowing opposing teams to shoot 39.2% from 3-point range, ranking UNC 321st out of 351 Division I teams in 3-point defense, according to kenpom.com.
Syracuse, on the other hand, loves to shoot the 3. This season, 43.4% of the Orange's field goal attempts have been 3-pointers, which means they shoot 3s at a higher rate than all but 27 teams in college basketball.
The Orange average 24.8 attempted 3s per game, and they'll likely shoot near or above that amount on Saturday when the Tar Heels visit the Carrier Dome. And for Syracuse to earn its first ACC win, it will likely need to make those 3s at a decent rate. To do that, SU would be wise to turn to the lineup that pits its four best 3-point shooters — Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon — on the court alongside forward Tyler Roberson.
Given North Carolina's size, Syracuse might be tempted to respond with a bigger lineup of its own — bigger than the one mentioned above. The Tar Heels boast a frontcourt featuring the 6-foot-10 Brice Johnson and, if he returns from a knee injury, the 6-foot-10 Kennedy Meeks.
If Syracuse uses Lydon at center for the majority of the game, it would mean virtually surrendering the rebounding battle, something it might be hesitant to do. But that's probably the smart approach to take. The Tar Heels are such a good rebounding team — they rank 11th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 48th in defensive rebounding percentage — that they'll likely control the glass regardless of which lineup SU rolls out.
But the Orange can gain advantages in other areas if they use their smaller lineup. Through 16 games this season, that lineup is now plus-97 in just under 252 minutes of action, and it's been effective on both ends of the court. Per 40 minutes, Syracuse is averaging 75.5 points and allowing an average of 60.1 points when using that lineup.
Most impressively, Syracuse is shooting 41.8% from 3 with that lineup on the court, compared to 31.8% when it isn't. When its biggest and best rebounding lineup — consisting of Gbinije, Cooney, Lydon, Roberson and Dajuan Coleman — is on the court, Syracuse is shooting just 25% from 3. That lineup has appeared in seven games and is minus-5 on the season.
The bigger lineup has been competitive every time out, only once registering a plus-minus of worse than minus-2, but it's inherently flawed on the offensive end. With both Coleman and Roberson clogging the lane, there's little room for the Orange to create scoring opportunities.
With the smaller lineup, the four 3-point threats allow for good spacing, and Roberson's adept screening capabilities have helped free up driving lanes.
That lineup has only registered a negative plus-minus in two games this season, first against Wisconsin and then against Pittsburgh. In both those games, it suffered because it didn't fare well from beyond the arc.
Against Wisconsin, that was mostly a result of Syracuse simply missing shots, as the Orange as a whole went 7-of-24 from 3-point range in that game. But Pittsburgh actually managed to run Syracuse off the 3-point line, holding the Orange to just 15 attempts from 3 and forcing interim head coach Mike Hopkins to turn to bigger lineups before Coleman fouled out. That seemed to be the right move on Hopkins' part, and it was evidence that Syracuse's smaller lineup won't always be its most effective.
North Carolina, though, likely won't be able to replicate Pittsburgh's performance. While the Panthers rank 36th in the country in 3-point defense, the Tar Heels haven't proven capable of adequately defending the perimeter.
And in each of UNC's two losses this season, there was at least one common denominator: the Tar Heels' opponent had frequent success with the 3. In UNC's 71-67 loss to Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, the Panthers went 11-of-28 from 3-point range. In the Tar Heels' 84-82 loss to Texas on Dec. 12, the Longhorns went 12-of-24 from 3.
For Syracuse to even have a chance to pull off an upset of a similar magnitude Saturday, it needs to put itself in position to have the same success — even if that means accepting a beatdown in the low post.