Georgia Tech at North Carolina
Georgia Tech (8-12, 1-5) at North Carolina (17-3, 4-1), 6:00 PM, ESPNU
North Carolina has three easier games before their matchup with Duke on February 8th, starting with this one (or at least games they should win). The challenge for the Tar Heels will be to maintain that focus they have shown in the last 1 1/2 games; when they lose it, Florida State happens. If they can build good habits even against inferior opponents, they’ll be tough for anyone to beat. If there’s anything scary about Georgia Tech besides their offense, it’s that they are much, much better on the road (1-2, outscored by a total of two points) compared to at home (0-3, outscored by 54 points). And Georgia Tech has been a problem for North Carolina, winning four straight against the Tar Heels.
Stat to watch: North Carolina’s three-point percentage. The Tar Heels were a really good three-point shooting team in about their first 13 games, shooting 39.1% from three. But in their last seven games (including their last two non-conference games) they’ve shot just 28.4 percent. In ACC play, it’s even worse (20-of-81, 25 percent). The slumps of Reggie Bullock and freshman sharp-shooter P.J. Hairston have contributed to the three-point shooting woes, but it’s hard to know which stat line is the one to expect going forward. It’s more likely to be somewhere in the middle – maybe 36% or so – but only if Hairston can shake his slump. Still, if Carolina’s post men keep playing as well as they have, they won’t need to make many three’s. Georgia Tech has actually played some nice defense inside the arc, but teams have been either raining down three’s or hitting a bunch of foul shots against them (or both, in some cases). In the last two games, Clemson and Miami have combined to hit 17-of-34 three’s. They’re still likely going to be willing to take their chances with Carolina shooting three’s by crowding the paint, but so is every future Carolina opponent. The Tar Heels need to knock some down and get in a rhythm.
Most important players: Tyler Zeller, North Carolina and Mfon Udofia, Georgia Tech. Because Georgia Tech’s offense is so bad, Udofia’s improvement has gone somewhat under the radar. And he has been wildly inconsistent. He averaged 18 points in Georgia Tech’s first two ACC games (in a close loss to Duke and a win over N.C. State) but scored 23 total points in the next three games. Against Miami, he had his best game since the State win with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting in 31 minutes. It seems like a random Georgia Tech guard has a breakout game against North Carolina once a year or so and since Glen Rice, Jr. has already had his, maybe it’s Udofia’s turn.
Tyler Zeller’s uptick in play recently has drawn some comparisons to former Tar Heel Sean May, who went from pretty good to utterly dominant during the course of the 2004-05 season. Zeller hasn’t played a full season yet, so whether or not he can do what May did remains to be seen. But looking at what he’s done so far, giving just percentages and averages from the first and second halves of the season to date (when each began to become more dominant), it’s hard to tell them apart:
First part of the season: 54.3% FG, 73.8% FT, 15.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg
Second part of the season: 58.3% FG, 77.9% FT, 19.7 ppg, 12.2 rpg
First part of the season: 52.4% FG, 76.0% FT, 13.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg
Second part of the season: 62.3%, 86.4% FT, 17.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg
Player A is Sean May, whose second part of the season was 19 games (the first part was 18 games). Player B is Zeller, whose second part began in ACC play. It will be tough for Zeller to keep up this pace, but he’s talented enough to do it. The similarities between May and Zeller’s seasons are uncanny, particularly considering how each were/are perceived. Like Zeller, May often was knocked as a “soft” player before he went into beast mode. Zeller has played with a kind of anger the last five games that had only come out occasionally before. If he can combine his skill set and finesse with that fire, look out.
Random stat: Georgia Tech’s opponents have scored more than 70 points just twice in ACC play. The Yellow Jackets are 1-1 in those games, beating N.C. State 82-71 and losing at home to Duke, 81-74 in one of Georgia Tech’s better games this year.
Prediction: North Carolina 85, Georgia Tech 59
Last week: 7-5
Season: 88-31 (24-12 ACC)