No. 2 Syracuse is playing very much like a No. 1 team. The Tar Heels did win at Michigan State when the Spartans were the nation’s top-ranked team. That’s why Carolina hopes its 3-0 mark against ranked teams this season means it can avoid an 0-3 start in ACC play.
“Michigan State, Louisville, Kentucky -- I thought when we played them those were really good teams,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We caught them on a night when they didn’t play well and we played very well. I hope that that would happen again.”
For that to happen, the Heels will have to figure out the Orange zone better than it operated against Miami. That means getting better shots and taking better care of the ball.
UNC sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto said the team has to be smart with its decision-making against Syracuse and not take too many risks of trying to squeeze a pass in a small window.
“One big key for us is recognizing their length, you can’t really simulate their length in zone [defense],” Tokoto said. “The passes we make right now probably won’t be there. So just recognizing that and be smart with our decision making in the game.”
Syracuse doesn’t look at playing zone as being passive. It generates as many deflections and steals as a team that plays man-to-man full time.
“People don’t realize how aggressive it is,” Williams said. “We try to steal the ball, that’s what we try to do -- we don’t do a good job of it so far this year -- but our turnover margin is 2.2. They play zone, they’re turnover margin is plus-6.”
Tokoto added that it was important to stay active against the Orange in order to exploit their weak spots. In the loss to Miami, Tokoto said he got stagnant and his movement was something that could have helped Carolina become more efficient.
UNC shot a season-low 30.8 percent to the Hurricanes, which came after shooting just 38.7 percent in the loss to Wake Forest. It’s not a coincidence that leading scorer Marcus Paige had his worst two games shooting this season in those contests.
Williams said getting Paige some help and out of his shooting slump was his biggest concern heading into the game.
He had little concern that the Heels would be ready. Williams said “no question” his team was a bit more focused and played harder in meetings with ranked teams.
“If that’s the same kind of attitude that shows up (against the Orange) I’ll be very pleased,” said Williams, who later added, “…We have to be completely fired up, completely enthused, completely motivated or we have no chance.”