College basketball season rolls along as we draw nearer to March Madness. This past week has been a rough one for teams ranked in the AP’s Top 10, with five of them falling in upsets to conference opponents. Villanova (#1), Kansas (#2), Kentucky (#4), Florida State (#6) and UCLA (#8) all suffered losses to unranked conference foes, opening the door for some movement at the top of the rankings.
One team looking to capitalize will be last year’s national runner-up, the North Carolina Tar Heels. Roy Williams’ squad currently sits ninth in the rankings with an 18-3 record (6-1 ACC) and, by virtue of the Seminoles’ loss to Georgia Tech, are in sole possession of first place in the brutally tough ACC. The Tar Heels will look to avoid the same fate as their fellow Top 10 teams when they travel to the sunshine state to face Miami Saturday on CBS.
Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes have had a roller-coaster of a season so far. They began the year 10-2, but have gone 3-4 since starting ACC play and find themselves as one of the last four teams to make it in Jerry Palm’s latest bracketology. A win over UNC on Saturday afternoon would go a long way to helping their tournament resume.
To get more insight into this matchup, we talked to CBS Sports college basketball analyst Seth Davis.
CBS Local Sports: North Carolina has been rolling since opening ACC play with a loss to Georgia Tech. What is working so well for Roy Williams’ squad right now?
Seth Davis: The main thing about North Carolina right now is they have great role definition. Everybody knows their responsibilities, and it’s just one of those situations where it’s not just that they have talent, which they always do, but the pieces fit really well together. That starts at the point guard spot with Joel Berry, who last year shared that responsibility with Marcus Paige. Marcus Paige, as good as he was, you didn’t always know what you were going to get from him, especially from a shooting standpoint. You could see from the very first minute of the very first game that Joel Berry understood that this was his team and he’s played accordingly. He had a a little bit of an absence when he was injured but, for the most part, he’s been a very steady hand.
Justin Jackson on the wing has played like an All-American. That’s something that a lot of us who have been watching him have been waiting for. It’s not like he’s an old man, he’s only a junior in college, and before he was deferential and not totally confident and not totally developed in his skills. But he’s really playing with unbelievable aggression, precision, efficiency. So they [North Carolina] have a lot of good pieces.
The final thing that’s happened here in the last couple of weeks is they’ve gotten their senior forward Theo Pinson back. [He] is just a good role player, comes off the bench, and he’s a versatile defender, finisher and glue guy. He’s just tightened the screws a little bit. They’re a very solid team in a lot of respects. I think they may even be better than the team last year that lost in the last second of the national championship game. Regardless, they have every reason to feel confident that they can go on and win the ACC.
CBS Local Sports: On the flip side of this matchup, Miami has really struggled since starting ACC play, going 3-4 over the last several weeks. What has gone wrong for the Hurricanes after their fast start to the year?
Davis: They lost some talent from last year’s team. Frankly, the players they have back are not as good, particularly in the front court where they lack a lot of skill. They do have two very good guards in Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton, who are excellent off the dribble, so they’re going to test North Carolina’s ability to shut off dribble penetration. But overall for Jim Larranaga I don’t think the talent level is where it has been for some of his better teams. He’s got a tall task on Saturday, and I’m sure that he knows that.
CBS Local Sports: This game presents an interesting contrast of styles with North Carolina playing more uptempo while Miami has been playing at a slower pace this year. Which style do you see winning out on Saturday?
Davis: Just about everybody that plays North Carolina is going to play a slower tempo. That’s what Roy Williams likes to do, push the pace. They run after made baskets. They have something called a secondary break. [That’s] when you try to push the pace and get a fast break basket, if you don’t get that first break, there’s a way that everybody drives to the rim, there’s a way to get a second fast break basket on that.
Generally speaking, It is easier for a team that wants to play slow to make a team that wants to run slow down, as opposed to speeding up a team that wants to slow the pace. But, Miami’s had a difficult time taking care of the basketball. If you’re going to slow the pace, you’ve really got to limit your turnovers, and they’ve had a couple of games this season where they’ve had high turnover numbers.
Another great way to limit a fast break is to shoot high percentages from the floor. It’s a lot harder to run off of a made basket than it is off of a missed basket, a long rebound or a steal in the backcourt. North Carolina’s going to have their opportunities to score.
CBS Local Sports: You mention how the Hurricanes can try to stop, or at least, slow down the Tar Heels fast break. Is the key to limit turnovers and force them to play in the half court?
Davis: Well, as much as you can make North Carolina play in the half court, that’s what the goal is going to be. But, again, their front court is so deep and so talented. Kennedy Meeks is one of my favorite players in college basketball. He came in pretty overweight, and he’s worked really hard to keep himself in shape, eat right and get himself in good physical condition. They also have a freshman in Tony Brown who is just an offensive rebounding machine.
They’ve got lots of ways to score in the half court that maybe they haven’t been able to do in the past.
CBS Local Sports: Who are going to be the X-factors in your mind for each side heading into Saturday’s matchup?
Davis: Davon Reed for Miami, because he’s a little up-and-down as an outside shooter. If you’re going to beat North Carolina, you need to make sure that if you get those opportunities from the outside, you need to be able to make them.
Then Theo Pinson is an X-factor for North Carolina, because he is a guy who has the ability to score, maybe not all the time, but in certain spots when they need to. Playing off of North Carolina’s other starters, he can get some open looks.
The Tar Heels and ‘Canes will battle it out from the Watsco Center in Coral Gables Florida this Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.