Whoever decided to create this ACC schedule for Syracuse probably isn’t getting a Christmas card from Jim Boeheim next year. After a tough loss at home against a very good Miami squad on Saturday, Syracuse gets to turn right around and head on the road to Chapel Hill to take on No. 15-ranked North Carolina on Monday night. For a team that just had four players log 40 minutes of action in the loss to the Hurricanes, this is less than ideal.
Syracuse and North Carolina have been mentioned as two of the more disappointing teams in America so far this basketball season, though I’m not entirely sure that’s altogether fair. For starters, expectations were probably a little unrealistic for the Orange heading into the season with so many unproven factors, and while Carolina struggled out of the gate, the fact is that the Tar Heels have been gaining momentum of late. UNC has won six in a row in the ACC, and 11 of its last 12 games. The only loss in that stretch was a one point defeat at the hands of Notre Dame.
Syracuse, meanwhile, has been limping along with a bench that hasn’t just been shortened, it’s been absolutely gutted. The Orange weren’t going to be particularly deep to begin with this season, but the loss of Dajuan Coleman before the season even began, and the ACL injury to Chris McCullough have obviously left Syracuse painfully thin up front, and overall. As it stands, if your name isn’t Ron Patterson you probably aren’t going to get a chance to take off your warmup pants.
The Tar Heels haven’t been immune from the injury bug either, of course. In the team’s last game, a narrow win over Florida State, the Heels were without Theo Pinson and Joel Berry, who each average better than 10 minutes per game. Pinson is the more significant loss, as the highly touted freshman swingman is out indefinitely with a broken foot. Obviously, neither loss is as devastating as Coleman or, in particular, McCullough, but the Tar Heels are heading into Monday night’s showdown physically beaten down as well.
That said, the most important players for North Carolina are all expected to be in uniform in what will be, without question, one of the toughest battles the Orange have faced all season. The Tar Heels are led by 6-foot-1 guard Marcus Paige, who averages 13.8 points and can be lethal from three point range. Paige has hit far and away the most long balls for UNC (48) at a clip of 38.1%. After Paige, though, there’s not much by way of three point shooters. Nate Britt is a distant second on the team with 13 treys, with the 6-foot-1 sophomore hitting at 32.5% from deep.
Most of the damage outside of Paige is done on the inside, making this a stiff test for the back line of Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije, and Tyler Roberson. With virtually no depth at the forward position now that BJ Johnson and especially Chino Obokoh have basically been exiled to the end of the bench, Syracuse simply cannot afford to let any of the starting trio get into foul trouble. Frankly, barring foul trouble or injury I fully expect all three to clock 38-40 minutes once again.
UNC is big and athletic, with 6-foot-9 Kennedy Meeks, 6-foot-9 Brice Johnson, 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson, and 6-foot-6 JP Tokoto joining Paige in the starting lineup. As you might expect with a starting five featuring that much size, the Tar Heels have absolutely dominated opponents on the glass, boasting a rebounding margin of just under 10 per game.
Meeks leads the way up front, averaging close to a double-double with 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and hitting 58.7% of his shots. Johnson and Jackson are also in double figures on a nightly basis, chipping in 12.0 and 10.3 points, respectively. Tokoto, a wing with the kind of athleticism that makes him a highlight reel in motion, adds 9.1 points per game.
Again, it can’t be stressed enough that this Tar Heels team is going to try to beat the Orange on the inside, making them basically the polar opposite of the Miami team that Syracuse faced on Saturday. It’s tough to go from one extreme to the other like this, and the fact that Syracuse only has one day between games not just to recover from the physical wear and tear of Saturday’s game, but also to prepare for an entirely different style of play, is going to make for an extremely difficult task.
Carolina can score in bunches, and a lot of that is going to come on the offensive glass. UNC heads into the game with the Orange averaging 79.3 points, and their huge lineup pounds the offensive boards for 15.8 rebounds per game. Overall, the Heels grab 43.5 rebounds on a nightly basis, once again illustrating how crucial it will be for Christmas and Roberson to step up and keep the Tar Heels from getting too many second and third chances.
The Orange are also going to need a far more consistent effort from Gbinije on both ends of the court if they want a chance to win this game. Gbinije’s rebounding will be particularly important, as the 6-foot-7 swingman has been terribly inconsistent on the boards over the last few games. After a stretch of 10, nine, and 11 rebounds against Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Wake Forest, Silent G only grabbed two boards against Clemson and three against Miami, with an eight rebound game sandwiched in between against Boston College.
For those keeping track at home, Syracuse won the four games in which Gbinije snagged at least eight boards, and lost the two in which he failed to grab more than three. That’s obviously not the only determining factor, but it’s indicative of how important his presence on the glass can be in helping his team get the win. It will be especially important against North Carolina, a team that just abused Florida State for 42 points in the paint.
This is also the second big test in a row for Kaleb Joseph, more so on defense than offense. Joseph has been frustrating to watch on that end of the court, and needs to do a vastly better job of challenging shooters. This task should be made simpler due to the fact that Paige is really the only legitimate outside threat, making it a lot easier for the Syracuse guards and wings to keep track of him. Both Joseph and Cooney need to be ready to make quick, smart rotations considering we’ll probably see a lot of the Orange doubling and trapping the North Carolina big men, and when they kick it out both of the Syracuse starting guards need to be able to locate Paige in a hurry.
There’s no way around saying this: it’s going to be extremely difficult for Syracuse to go down to Chapel Hill to pull off a win. If the Orange can come away with the victory and Rakeem Christmas can put up his usual numbers against this North Carolina front line, well he has to just about vault to the top of the ACC Player of the Year discussions. This is going to be a physical battle for the Orange, with barely a day of rest since their last outing. Fortunately for the Orange, Carolina had four players who also each logged at least 30 minutes in the Florida State game.
We were hoping that Syracuse would be able to head into this game with a 16-4 record after our relatively soft early conference schedule. Instead, the Orange are 14-6, with each game becoming more of the make or break variety as far as the postseason is concerned. Winning in North Carolina is certainly doable, as the Tar Heels lost to an Iowa team that Syracuse handled early in the year. It would be great to head back to CNY with a 15-6 record on Monday night, but it’s most definitely not going to be easy.
What say you,
John William Wallace?
Let’s hope that Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije, and Tyler Roberson are. Because that’s exactly what they’re going to get.