9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: North Carolina -10, Over/Under: 152
The final week of the Regular Season means that the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner, with a pair of teams traveling in very different directions looking to make the requisite preparations, as the Ninth-Ranked North Carolina Tar Heels play host to the Miami Hurricanes at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Unfortunate would probably be the best way to describe this season for Miami (20-8, 9-7 in ACC), who based off of their recent string of performances could be in danger of advancing to the NCAA Tournament at all. After getting off to a promising 13-2 start to the campaign, Jim Larranaga’s charges have gone a meandering 7-6, thanks in no small part to the prolonged absence of Bruce Brown (11.4 PTS, 41.5% FG, 26.7% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.8 BLK, 16.8 PER), who was initially pronounced out for six weeks after undergoing surgery on his Left Foot back in late January. However, recent reports out of Coral Gables have hinted that the original 6-Week Timetable for recovery may have been a bit hasty, with that period certainly extending to the entirety of the ACC Tournament. This of course, could really put the team’s NCAA Tournament chances in peril, for how will the Selection Committee judge them? Will they be graded as the team that spent four consecutive weeks ranked in the Top-10, or are they viewed as the unit that promptly fell out of the Rankings altogether four out of the last five weeks? Needless to say, this was a HUGE blow to the Hurricanes, for despite struggling with his shot, the Sophomore Guard managed to lead the team in both Rebounds (7.1) and Assists (4.0) this year. Now 4-3 without his services, Larranaga has tinkered with his lineup a great deal, opting to go with a larger, more experienced unit leading to positive results in victories over the likes of Notre Dame (77-74) and most recently Boston College (79-78), both by the slimmest of margins. In each contest, Miami left A LOT to be desired on the defensive end of the court, as their opponents shot over 52.0% from the Field (Boston College shot 56.6%), but they nonetheless managed to triumph in the end by outworking their counterparts, creating extra opportunities via Offensive Rebounds or Turnovers. Against Notre Dame, the visiting side harassed the Irish into Eleven Turnovers, while permitting Fourteen Assists, which when coupled with shooting 53.4% from the Field themselves, gave them the edge needed to snap a Three-Game Losing Streak. In regards to the following meeting with Boston College, it was all about putting in work on the glass, as the hosts outrebounded the visiting side 36-25, including 12-5 on the offensive end, which led to a dozen more attempts from the Field. While the Hurricanes fielded a much more experienced lineup, Lonnie Walker (11.5 PTS, 41.9% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.3 PER) continued to play a big role in their success, with the Freshman Guard accounting for a team-high Nineteen Points on 7-of-14 Shooting (50.0%), Three Rebounds, Four Assists, and a Steal against the Fighting Irish, and Fourteen Points on 6-of-14 Shooting (42.9%), Three Rebounds, Four Assists, and a Block versus the Eagles. The Underclassman has done an admirable job of raising his stock in the absence of Brown, averaging 15.6 Points per Game, while knocking down a healthy 38.3% of Threes over the past seven outings. However, it’s become clear that if the Canes are to indeed advance to the Tournament, this kid will need to be the hero; against Notre Dame, Walker drained 5-of-7 Attempts from Downtown (71.4%) in the narrow victory, including the go-ahead Trey to cap off a 13-0 run to secure the win, while nailing the game-winner from deep with 2.3 Seconds remaining to overcome a 14-Point Deficit against Boston College. Now we’ll see if he can lead them to glory at Chapel Hill, a place they haven’t won at since 2004, while going 2-3 against the Tar Heels overall since then. And with all that said, if they are going to go into the Dean Dome and spoil Senior Night, then they’re going to need to bring a better effort defensively, for this has NOT been anything remotely close to a good defensive team this season; Miami ranks next-to-last in the ACC in opponents’ Field Goal Percentage (47.4%), all the while struggling immensely to defend the rim, where they’ve permitted the opposition to shoot 54.2%.
Meanwhile, North Carolina (22-7, 11-5 in ACC) finds themselves in an interesting place with just a pair of games left before the Postseason begins next week. They’re out of contention for the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, trailing Top-Ranked Virginia by four games in the Standings, though have the opportunity to potentially vault past arch-rival Duke, whom they trail by a single contest for Second Place (while also set to meet in the Regular Season Finale on Saturday). However, they also have the potential to fall down the Standings quite a bit too, with both Clemson and North Carolina State trailing them by a game as well, which would effect their seeding in not just the looming Conference Tournament, but (more importantly) the NCAA Tournament to boot. And it’s with that said, that there is no time for the reigning NCAA Champions to get complacent now, particularly when they’re carrying such momentum, winning seven consecutive outings. There is also plenty of incentive to keep this current run going with the scathing reports of scandal and corruption running throughout the College Basketball World, implicating the involvement of a slew of elite Programs (including the Tar Heels) in an FBI Investigation regarding the payment to a number of high-profile recruits, which certainly isn’t a welcome sight after being exonerated of previous sanctions by the NCAA back in the Fall. So, what you’re saying is that Senior Night couldn’t come at a better time, right? North Carolina will celebrate the careers of their veteran players, with last year’s NCAA Tournament Heroes, Theo Pinson (9.8 PTS, 47.5% FG, 20.5% 3FG, 6.2 REB, 4.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 18.3 PER) and Joel Berry (17.7 PTS, 39.9% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.9 PER) enjoying the majority of the plaudits, as both have spent quite a bit of time in Chapel Hill, self-made players who developed over the duration of their eligibility, a novelty in a game overrun by the proverbial One-and-Dones. However, the length of their respective careers have also dictated a bit of change in the team’s structure this season; under Roy Williams, the Heels have always been built from the inside out, with a litany of athletic bigs that can both crash the boards and run the floor, serving as the foundation of their success, whereas this particular group of players has been inverted, with the emphasis being placed on the perimeter. This is a team that has bombed away from beyond the arc with far more frequency than they have in years past, ranking Fourth in the league in both Three-Pointers Attempted (24.4) and Made (8.7), a stark contrast to ranking Eighth in those same categories last term. To put things into proper perspective, North Carolina attempted a total of 375 Threes in conference play a year ago, and have already jacked up 390 Attempts with two games left to play. Wingmen Kenny Williams (11.3 PTS, 48.2% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.8 PER) and Cameron Johnson (12.7 PTS, 43.0% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 18.3 PER) have earned more prominent roles in the rotation primarily on the strength of their shooting prowess, while Junior Forward Luke Maye (18.0 PTS, 51.3% FG, 46.7% 3FG, 10.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.2 BLK, 26.3 PER) has gotten into the act as well. During this current stretch of success Williams’ charges have been given the green-light, knocking down 38.0% of their Attempts from Downtown. But don’t think for a second that their new-found shooting stroke has come at the expense of their work rate on the glass, for the Tar Heels continue to outwork just about everyone they face in this regard; they rank first in the ACC in both Total Rebounds (42.6) and Offensive Rebounds (15.2), which of course plays a huge factor in their ability to create so many easy, second-chance opportunities. Case in point: in their narrow 78-74 victory over Syracuse last Saturday, they managed to stave off the Orange thanks to their rebounding advantage, besting their counterpart by a slim 32-31 margin, but 13-8 on the offensive end of court. This granted them seven more Field Goal Attempts, including eight more that came from within the Arc, a direct result of those precious Offensive Rebounds. The criminally under-used Sterling Manley (5.9 PTS, 57.5% FG, 4.0 REB, 0.8 BLK, 25.2 PER) was chief in this regard, recording Five Offensive Boards to go along with Twelve Points, Two Assists, and a Block in Seventeen Minutes off the Bench.