UNC Basketball Returns Home After Long Road Stretch to face Syracuse

The UNC Basketball program will play just its second home game in the last six weeks when it welcomes Syracuse to town on Saturday afternoon.

North Carolina v NC State
North Carolina v NC State / Lance King/GettyImages

Ah, finally. The UNC Basketball team will return home to the friendly confines of the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday afternoon after what feels like an eternity spent on the road. It'll be just the second home game for the Tar Heels in the past six weeks after their home win over Florida State during the first weekend of December, with the lone home game since then coming against Charleston Southern in front of a sellout crowd on December 29th.

North Carolina is playing like a completely different team from the one we saw that Saturday afternoon in early December. The defense intensity has significantly changed, and the Tar Heels are taking pride in individual defense and out-rebounding their opponent.

Off to a 4-0 start in ACC Play for the first time since the 2015-2016 season and sitting atop the conference standings in sole possession of first place, the Tar Heels now get their first two consecutive home conference games of the season, beginning with the Syracuse Orange on Saturday.

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The Orange are 11-4 on the season and have begun ACC play 2-2, with home wins over Pittsburgh and Boston College and road losses at Virginia and Duke (both losses by 20 or more points). The Tar Heels and Orange share one common non-conference opponent this season, with Syracuse losing to Tennessee in the Maui Invitational 73-56.

Key to Victory for North Carolina

The defense and rebounding have been the discussion surrounding the UNC Basketball program during the last three weeks. The Tar Heels have held four consecutive opponents to 60 points or fewer, with three of those being ACC Opponents.

The UNC Basketball team was ranked No. 47 in KenPom's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency on December 19th, prior to their contest with Oklahoma. Since then, they have skyrocketed, moving as high as No. 7 following their 67-54 road victory over NC State.

Defense will be another key on Saturday when the Orange come to town. Why is that 60-point mark important? Well, in their four losses this season, Syracuse is averaging 60.25 points per game. In their wins? 80.5 points per game. Hold the Orange closer to 60 points on Saturday, and North Carolina's chances of winning the game increase significantly.

Something to Watch For

While the defense intensity has been great and a huge reason that the Tar Heels are off to a 4-0 start in ACC Play, it would be nice to see that defensive intensity paired with the offense that we saw in the first half of the Tennessee game. The Tar Heels are averaging just 67.3 points per game over the last three games, where the defense has been the catalyst. For reference, during the first 12 games of the season, the average points per game for North Carolina was 86.4 points per game.

For this team to go to the next level, they need to find a way to pair the most recent defense efforts with the explosive offense we saw earlier in the season. If they can do that, the ceiling for the 2023-2024 UNC Basketball team can go through the roof (or should we say, the ceiling is the roof?).

The Syracuse guards will be a matchup to keep an eye on. Judah Mintz and JJ Starling are both listed at six-foot-four and the Orange leading scorers with 18.5 and 11 points per game, respectively. The third guard for Syracuse has either been Justin Taylor or Quadir Copeland and while neither has eye-popping numbers offensively, both are six-foot-six. Size could be a factor once again on Saturday.

Last Meeting

North Carolina and Syracuse met just once during the 2022-2023 season with the matchup coming in the Carrier Dome... uh, JMA Wireless Dome. It was a game that the Tar Heels trailed 68-66 with 1:23 remaining, and didn't take the lead until 20 seconds to go.

Pete Nance went to the charity stripe with the Tar Heels trailing by two with 21 seconds remaining, he Nance made the first, and missed the game-tying attempt. However, a turnover by Joseph Girard on the rebound attempt and steal by Nance created a layup to give North Carolina the 69-68 lead with 19 seconds remaining.

Syracuse turned it over on their following possession and Caleb Love made three of four free throws in the final 10 seconds to secure the four-point, 72-68 victory over the Orange. Nance was the leading scorer with 21 points in 40 minutes, while Armando Bacot added 18 points and Love 15.

Syracuse was led by Girard with 18 points, while Judah Mintz provided 17 and Chris Bell 15. The Orange out-rebounded the Tar Heels 35-31, but turned it over 16 times, leading to 20 points off turnovers for the Tar Heels. The points off turnovers combined with North Carolina shooting 23 free throw attempts to just three for the Orange were the difference in the game.

Projected Starters

No. 2 Elliot Cadeau (Fr. 6-1, 180) 7.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 3.5 apg

No. 3 Cormac Ryan (Sr. 6-5, 195) 10.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.4 apg

No. 4 R.J. Davis (Sr. 6-0, 180) 20.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg

No. 5 Armando Bacot (Gr. 6-11, 240) 14.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 1.3 apg

No. 55 Harrison Ingram (Jr. 6-7, 235) 12.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.5 apg