After starting ACC play 0-3, the North Carolina Tar Heels are on fire.
They've won four straight games and five of their last six. Although the meat of the Atlantic Coast Conference is still to come, this momentum will play an important part in how UNC fares against its top, upcoming opponents.
With losses already against Syracuse and Virginia, Carolina is 0-2 against the elite ACC teams it has played. The other two elites, Duke and Pittsburgh, are on the docket these next two weeks, as is Notre Dame. To get a better idea of how far this momentum can extend the Heels' current win streak, we must take a closer look at their upcoming opponents.
On Saturday, Feb. 8, UNC visits the Irish. Having played most of the season now without its best player, Notre Dame has found ways to win where it could but has struggled within the conference.
Guard Eric Atkins was red hot following the dismissal of Jerian Grant. Although Atkins' shooting touch has cooled just a bit in recent games, he's remained on top of his game as far as limiting mistakes and handing out assists. He also leads the entire conference in minutes played.
The Irish as a whole, though, are struggling on the defensive end. Ranking third in the conference in points per game (right behind North Carolina), Notre Dame is wallowing at 14th in the ACC in points allowed. This is bad news in a game against the Heels. UNC scores a lot, and coach Roy Williams loves to push tempo.
Adding to the edge for UNC are the rebounding numbers. Carolina leads the conference in rebounds, while ND sits at ninth in the ACC and just 139th nationally. With the deep rotation of frontcourt players at Coach Williams' disposal, the edge in the game should go to UNC.
On Feb 12, Duke comes to town. With home-court advantage, UNC is in good shape to keep the winning streak alive here as well.
Obviously Carolina has proven itself capable of beating (and losing to) nearly anyone in the country. But Duke actually presents a similar challenge as Notre Dame, albeit at a higher level.
The Blue Devils are atrocious inside. They are even worse than ND in both rebounds and blocks, ranking 15th and 10th, respectively, in the conference.
Duke's best inside player is probably Jabari Parker, who is first on the team in blocks and rebounds. However, Parker is not a rim-protector by any means. He's a power forward who can play from the outside.
On the other hand, Duke dominates Carolina shooting the basketball. Duke is the ACC's best three-point shooting team, and Carolina is dead last in attempts and makes. Duke is second in free throws, while UNC's free-throw woes are well-documented to this point.
The overall numbers for Duke and Carolina are oddly similar, though. They rank first and second respectively in points per game, and they are eighth and ninth respectively in points allowed.
Duke has certainly been the better team on the season, as evidenced by its No. 11 ranking in the polls. However, it is not leaps and bounds better than Carolina.
Syracuse's recent win over Duke proves a team can take down the Blue Devils even while getting demolished in the three-point battle. In that 91-89 'Cuse win, Duke went an astounding 15-of-36 from three; Syracuse was just 3-of-4 for the game.
It seems unlikely Duke will attempt and make that many threes against Carolina. The strong edge inside and home court gives the Tar Heels their best chance to win.
If UNC is able to extend its winning streak to six, Pittsburgh on Feb. 15 will pose a huge hurdle toward the seventh victory.
The Panthers play at a reasonably offensive pace but manage to hold opponents to 60.3 points per game. They are also the second-best team in the conference according to Sports-Reference's Simple Ratings System.
The other bad news for North Carolina is that Pitt excels at some of the same things as the Tar Heels do. The Panthers are 12th in the country and lead the ACC in rebounding margin. They are also winning games by an average of 13.9 points per game, as opposed to UNC's 8.0 figure.
Lamar Patterson is Pitt's top player. He's averaging 18.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per conference game. It may be the responsibility of J.P. Tokoto to attempt to slow Patterson down. Tokoto is UNC's top defender according to defensive rating.
If Patterson has a huge game, Carolina doesn't have a player to match him at this point. No wing player on UNC's roster has proven himself as a reliable shooter or scorer. Even guard Marcus Paige has been disappearing in halves of many games.
The combination of a top player like Patterson with Pitt's defensive and rebounding excellence makes this one of the tougher matchups for North Carolina the rest of the way. Momentum is important in how a team comes out and what effort it puts forth, but matchups are even more important. UNC does not match up very well with Pittsburgh and may be in store for its first loss in quite some time.
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