Joel Berry II opened and Luke Maye closed outside on the road against Louisville for the North Carolina Tar Heels, collectively pouring eight threes down the Cardinals’ throat days before their 2013 title officially got vacated by the NCAA. The Syracuse Orange’s magnificent offensive performance at Louisville felt like a highlight of the season, the Tar Heel’s 93 point bomb was just another day.
UNC has dropped 90 points on three of its last five opponents, winning all five including an upset over Duke at home that now raises Roy Williams’ group to 10th in the nation entering Syracuse’s most-hyped home game of the season Wednesday.
As Jim Boeheim noted Monday, Williams’s squad features dynamic guard play and size across the positions. They also shoot the three at a daunting rate, 44 percent against Louisville, 37 percent on the season with top-scorer Maye hitting nearly half of over three attempts per game.
Miami entered its loss against Syracuse with a mindset of unloading threes after seeing N.C. State down the Orange with that strategy. The Hurricanes didn’t have the shooting personnel to pull that plan off successfully and it undermined their offense of the rest of the game. UNC can and will unload shots from deep.
They’ve gone with smaller lineups this year too, and Williams acknowledged that he had abandoned the 15-second shot clock he emphasized in practice earlier this season. He expressed interest in returning to it, since UNC’s fast break has been more medium, in his words. Teams that have scored against Syracuse’s 10th-ranked defense have gotten shots off from outside, but also move quickly before the zone sets.
“Every team I’ve ever had has been shocked,” Williams said of the zone. “They think they’re open… all of a sudden they trap you in the corner.”
North Carolina beat Syracuse 85-68 last year, and the Heels have defeated Boeheim’s Orange in five straight going back to 2015, including a dismantling in the 2016 Final Four. This year’s UNC squad is 21st in offense, averaging 83.6 PPG and that’s maintained at over 81 PPG through conference play. Williams seeks better defense from them, mentioning it repeatedly in his conference call (ranked 10th in ACC play).
The Tar Heels’ threat looms large and they’re among the best teams SU has encountered this season, but the test comes at the right time. Syracuse’s once dim tournament hopes have rejuvenated thanks to two ‘Quadrant 1” wins over Louisville and Miami. Boeheim may not know, but Joe Lunardi currently lists the Orange as the last team in for March Madness and a shot at UNC in the Carrier Dome is a sensational Q1 opportunity for a team that seems to be hitting its stride.
As Boeheim noted, this year’s team, despite injuries and departures, is beginning to separate itself from last season’s. One more win and they’ll match 2016-17’s 19 wins, and the strength of schedule (26th) and RPI (38th) rankings far outweigh last season’s (63 and 85, respectively).
Syracuse’s two Q1 wins are joined by only three Ls in Q2 and one (Georgia Tech) in the lower third. A loss to UNC won’t change much (‘Cuse enters as four-point underdogs) but a win could further solidify what currently looks like another coin toss for March.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. ET at the Dome and on ESPN.