The North Carolina Tar Heels and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will meet on Wednesday night in a battle of two ACC teams with much to prove.
TV schedule: Wednesday, December 30, 8:00 pm ET. RSN
Arena: McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Georgia
After starting their ACC seasons with disappointing losses, both North Carolina and Georgia Tech will look to right the ship with a resume-boosting win – and attempt to assert themselves as a force in a conference with no clear frontrunner. With both squads featuring sensational duos, this could – and should – be an entertaining late-night watch.
Prior to their game with Kentucky on the 19th, I mentioned that the Tar Heels (5-3) have endured a tumultuous December – and that has only continued heading into the final days of the month. After picking up close wins over Stanford and N.C. Central and suffering disappointing back-to-back losses to Texas and Iowa, UNC pulled away from Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic, 75-63 – and followed that up with an ACC-opening loss at NC State.
This has been a frustrating season thus far for a North Carolina squad picked to finish fourth in the ACC – and one that boasts the Preseason ACC Player of the Year in Garrison Brooks and one of the deepest frontcourts in the country. Those frustrations boiled over against NC State, which saw the Wolfpack lead for 39 minutes and the Tar Heels fall behind as much as 17 points.
Their performance featured four double-digit scorers – the same four Tar Heels who have averaged double-digits all season. Armando Bacot (12.1 ppg and 8.4 rpg) and Brooks (11.4 ppg and 7.4 rpg) headline a stellar and deep frontcourt, shooting a combined 60.95% – and are complemented by a talented but streaky freshmen guard duo in Caleb Love (11.1 ppg) and RJ Davis (10.1 ppg).
If there is one area that Roy Williams‘ squad has achieved great success in this year, it has been on the defensive end. They maintain the 17th-best defensive efficiency and rank 57th in 2P%-defense (45.1%) – and allow teams to average just 0.83 points per possession. In all, they are 5-1 when holding teams to below 70 points, with the lone exception being their 69-67 loss to Texas.
The issue for North Carolina has been their offense – they score just 0.84 points per possession and shoot 25.6% from beyond the arc, and they will face a Georgia Tech team that fares much better on the offensive end, averaging 0.97 points. The Yellow Jackets (4-3) have come alive after their season-opening home losses to Georgia State and Mercer, dismantling Kentucky, Nebraska, Florida A&M, and Delaware State by double-digits – with their lone loss in that stretch coming at Florida State.
Returning 77.7% of their output from last year’s 17-14 team that finished fifth in the ACC, expectations were high entering this season for Josh Pastner and the Yellow Jackets – they were picked ninth in the conference’s preseason poll, and senior guard Jose Alvarado was named to the Preseason All-ACC Second Team.
But their losses to Georgia State and Mercer were less than ideal, and their dominating win over Kentucky has not aged well-meaning the Yellow Jackets are in need of a season-defining win.
They have the pieces and experience needed to pull off the win, too. Georgia Tech features one of the most experienced starting lineups in all of college basketball, comprised of four seniors and one junior – and all five are averaging double-figures. Moses Wright (19.6 ppg and 7.4 rpg) and Alvarado (16.9 ppg) lead the way, while Michael Devoe (13.0), Jordan Usher (10.3), and Bubba Parham (10.0) round out the quintuplet. Alvarado, in particular, is coming off a stellar 29-point performance against Delaware State (11-14 FG, 4-5 3PT, 3-3 FT).
While UNC struggles offensively but excels defensively, the Yellow Jackets enjoy greater success on the offensive end than the defensive. They rank in the top 100 in 2P% (53.6%) and FT% (74.4%) and turn the ball over on just 15.7% of their possessions – the 34th-best mark. However, they are sub-140 in nearly every defensive category, including 2P% (49.1%, 142nd), 3P% (38.6%, 291st), and effective FG% (52.4%, 239th). Again, UNC gives up just 0.83 points per possession – while Georgia Tech allows 0.91.
Where this battle might come down to is three-point shooting – an area that the Tar Heels are awful from (25.6%, 309th) and do not rely much on (15.6% of their total point distribution). They defend better from beyond the arc than the Yellow Jackets do (34.6% to GT’s 38.6%), but the Jackets also shoot better (32.3%, 189th) and rely more (28.0% of total point distribution) on long-range bombs.
Both will score from inside, undoubtedly – 60.8% of UNC’s offense comes from inside play, largely due to their frontcourt, while 51.5% of GT’s offense comes on two-pointers. But what both teams do from beyond the arc – both offensively and defensively – will be the key to this tilt.
This will also be a duel of opposing tempos and styles, where UNC’s fast-paced tempo – comprised of the 45th-fastest possession length average (15.5 seconds), an defensive average possession length mark of 17.7 seconds (276th), and 86th-fastest tempo (72.1) – will combat GT’s numbers that rank on the opposite end of the spectrum, including in offensive (17.9 seconds, 267th) and defensive (16.0 seconds, 58th) average possession length and in tempo (67.9, 293rd).
Last season’s meeting between these two teams saw the Yellow Jackets dominate the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, 96-83, in a game where UNC did not record a field goal until the 6:50 mark in the first half. Brooks was sensational in that game, pouring in a career-high 35 points (9-18 FG, 17-18 FT) to go with 11 rebounds – but so was the duo of Alvarado (25 points and eight assists) and Wright (22 points and seven rebounds).
And, although UNC owns a dominant 69-26 edge in the all-time series, this should be a back-and-forth affair that could go GT’s way.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 70 – North Carolina 65