The Syracuse Orange will tip off against the North Carolina Tar Heels tonight at 9 p.m. ET inside the Dean Dome. Interestingly, Syracuse will check the box in having played all three schools in the research triangle on their home floors this season. The Orange beat Duke at Cameron, suffered a blowout loss at NC State and will now play its third game in North Carolina this season.
The Orange won’t be done in the state of North Carolina after this one though. Syracuse still has to play Wake Forest at their place this weekend and the ACC Tournament in Charlotte is just two weeks away.
For this matchup, however, we reached out to Al Hood from Tar Heel Blog to gather intel. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.
TNIAAM: How would you summarize North Carolina’s season to this point?
Al Hood: In a lot of ways, like a typical Roy Williams season. At the start of the season, he had to work in his best recruiting class in years with a solid group of seniors. We all knew the talent was there, but there were bumps integrating that talent together. The thing about Roy Williams and UNC, November Roy is different than January Roy, which is different than February and March Roy. You’ve seen that this season as Williams has, predictably, narrowed the rotations and everyone knows their role when they are in the game. They continue to improve as the season progresses, and they are rounding into form at just the right time. Syracuse probably would have wanted to face them in the beginning of the season instead of now.
TNIAAM: How does the UNC fan base feel about the race to a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament? That’s a very real possibility down the stretch.
AH: There is absolutely a path to that 1 seed, but it’s going to likely require them to not lose a game until at least the ACC Tournament title game. The loss against Virginia hurt, and while they absolutely aren’t getting enough credit for the win against Duke, the fact remains that most will view that loss in a different light without ZION WILLIAMSON THE GOD OF ALL BASKETBALL PLAYERS. I honestly think most fans weren’t even thinking they could get that one seed until the dominating win against FSU on Saturday, and there’s still a lot of basketball between now and Selection Sunday. It’s something to hope for, but for now most of us are just enjoying the hell out of this team.
TNIAAM: Cam Johnson leads this team in scoring and is torching from range. How has he stepped up and how many times do you get asked how many years he’s been in college?
AH: Fortunately the commentators for our games emphasize Cam’s journey enough to where most understand he’s in his last year. The easiest way to say he’s stepped up is that he’s finally healthy. Last season, he started with a knee injury that delayed his debut and really hindered him the whole year, and then it turned out he also had been playing on a hip injury that required another surgery this offseason. He had plenty of time to recover and take part in preseason practice, and from the jump you could tell he just felt more comfortable moving around the court. Now, he’s not only just a spot up three point shooter, but you’ve really seen him in the last two games move well without the ball and shoot that fifteen footer that almost can’t be guarded. He had 26 points against Duke without a single three pointer, and that alone should tell you about how his game has evolved. Some NBA team is going to steal him in the second round.
TNIAAM: On a scale of any Duke player ever to Tyler Hansbrough, how much do Tar Heel fans love Luke Maye?
AH: Probably just below Pyscho T, but close. Luke is always going to have a special place in our hearts thanks to the shot he hit against Kentucky, and now he’s also entered another pantheon thanks to how on fire he was against Duke last week. The stories about him being a walk-on are exaggerated, and every Carolina fan knows this by now, but how can you not love that bushy-faced dude who came in with low expectations and turned out to be one of the more consequential players in program history?
TNIAAM: Coby White has had a sensational season and grabbed a lot of attention in the early going. What’s his game like?
AH: He’s the fastest point guard that Carolina has had since Ty Lawson, and arguably a better shooter. We were all a little surprised when Roy went with him over Seventh Woods in the first game, but he very quickly showed why. He creates chaos because at any moment he can decide to drive the lane before a defense can adjust, and then if you try to stay with him, he can step back and nail a three. He’s the big reason Carolina was able to come back and win against Miami, being the only one who made baskets until Maye’s shot. He’s still a freshman, though, and it almost seemed like he has been a little out of control the last two games. That Carolina has won those two in dominating fashion speaks not only of the depth of this team, but the reason why fans are starting to think this may be a special season.
TNIAAM: Has Nassir Little started to adjust in February after a slow start in the beginning of the season?
AH: I think he answered that question on Saturday with his 18 points and two monster dunks. It came out after the game that Little still wasn’t feeling 100% against Duke as he took a shot in the chest the game before, but what’s been remarkable is how he hasn’t let it affect his attitude. Just read this quote (https://twitter.com/jleland_/status/1099469540583505922) after the game on Saturday, and you will see someone who has a maturity beyond his years. He isn’t speaking of himself at all but of the disrespect the team feels after the Duke game, and a lot of “we’s.” Roy mentioned after FSU that he told Little to go back to concentrating on getting to the basket and rebounding the basketball, and it sure looked like things clicked. If the Nassir you saw on Saturday is the one we get the rest of the year? Look out.
TNIAAM: Any interesting storylines coming out of UNC recently?
AH: The biggest one is probably just how under the radar this team is. Their losses to Michigan and Kentucky seemed to make this team an afterthought, losing against Virginia doesn’t help, and with ZION WILLIAMS THE GOD OF ALL BASKETBALL got injured against Duke, folks are ready to just forget that Carolina controlled that game against two other lottery picks from start to finish. Every team is looking for some motivation as we reach this time of year, and the amount of excuse making folks made for Duke has apparently gotten to this team, as the Nassir Little quote will tell you. They will have their chance soon, though.
TNIAAM: Roy Williams has historically had his teams crash the offensive boards hard against the Syracuse 2-3 zone. Do we see that this year with a more perimeter-oriented Tar Heel squad?
AH: If you had asked me a week ago, the easy answer would have been “yes.” Then they scored 62 points in the paint against Duke and then only shot seven three pointers against one of the tallest teams in the league on Saturday. In both games, they had a fearless attitude about attacking the rim, as well as setting up cuts to create easy baskets. Those cuts may not be there against the zone, and frankly it was surprising that Duke didn’t try a few minutes of one against them on Wednesday, but for two straight games the Tar Heels didn’t shoot the ball well from outside and throughly dominated their opponent. Add to that the experience that Luke Maye and Cam Johnson have in playing this team, and I think you’ll still see this team try to beat the zone from the inside. The difference is they have shooters to where if that zone collapses, they’ll be wide open outside.
TNIAAM: Who wins, what’s the final score and why?
AH: I think UNC takes this one 72-60. Roy Williams has traditionally done well against Syracuse since they joined the ACC, and as I mentioned they have the shooters to open up the zone. Defensively, Carolina is playing its best basketball right now, and if they aren’t going to have a let down against Florida State, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will keep their attention focused on the current opponent. The team has a chip on their shoulder about a lack of respect, and they know the only way to get it is to keep winning.
TNIAAM: Lastly, any recommendations you might be able to provide for a first-time Chapel hill visitor?
AH: Walk the campus, soak in the atmosphere. Give yourself time to get up to Franklin Street where it borders the campus and try a campus haunt. If you’re there early in the day, you can’t go wrong with getting lunch at Sutton’s Drug Store or ‘Sup Dogs. If you want to enjoy life after the game, head to Top of the Hill for the best view overlooking Franklin Street, or Linda’s for the best college bar on the street. Make sure to have some cheese fries if you go.