GameNight: Wake Forest vs North Carolina

January 10th, 2009
Jan 11 2009 - 8:00pm
This game's been circled on the calendar for a lot of college basketball fans since the season began, myself included. Two highly-ranked, talent-laden, exciting and fast-paced teams meet in a game that looks to have serious ramifications for the ACC title race and NCAA seeding when #5 North Carolina (14-1, 0-1) travels to Winston Salem to face #3 Wake Forest (13-0).

Wake Forest has an impressive record, one of only three remaining undefeated teams in the country. However, there isn't a ton of depth to their wins, with two of the Deacons best coming in the Anaheim Classic against UTEP and Baylor. The other significant win was a trip to BYU, where Wake broke the Cougars' nation-leading home winning streak. North Carolina seemed to be cruising towards a battle of undefeated teams until last week, when they suffered a surprising home loss to Boston College. Before that, though, UNC had impressed in Maui by man-handling Notre Dame, and blown out Michigan St. in Detroit and Kentucky in Chapel Hill.

One of the main reasons this game is so looked-forward to is the pace of play that's expected. Wake and North Carolina are both among the quickest teams in the nation , and we can expect a lot of chances in transition and some spectacular plays. Perhaps the most interesting part of the game to watch will be when UNC has the ball, as that will match up a national-elite offense against a similarly elite defense. North Carolina does everything well offensively, but its main strengths are avoiding turnovers, making shots from inside, whether on the break or from the half-court, and getting offensive boards. The Heels aren't that strong from three, but don't take that many attempts. Wake Forest will defend shots well from everywhere, and will do well on the defensive glass, but won't be able to cause turnover problems for a North Carolina team accustomed to a fast pace.

Wake Forest are good but not great offensively, and that might be enough to cost them in a game like this. The Deacons take nearly 80% of their shots from two, a good strategy considering they make only one-third of their three attempts, but over 55% of twos. Pounding the ball inside also means that Wake gets to the line often, and it earns a lot of points there. Unlike North Carolina, Wake does suffer with turnovers at their high pace, and this could be a major factor. North Carolina is solid in most aspects of the defensive game, but doesn't do anything really well. When the Tar Heel defense has been a weak point, it's often been because the opponent shot efficiently, as Boston College did last week.

North Carolina has as much pure talent as any team in the nation, and the Heels are led by a great inside-outside pair in junior Ty Lawson and senior Tyler Hansbrough. Lawson leads the ACC in assists and steals, and has committed just 24 turnovers in 15 games, for an absurd 4.1 A/TO ratio. He's also a very solid shooter, hitting over 45% of his threes. Hansbrough has scored at least 20 points in each of the Heels' last 10 games, and shoots 56% from the field while also getting to the line frequently. Hansbrough actually leads the nation in points/40 minutes, ahead of the likes of Stephen Curry and Lester Hudson. Wayne Ellington starts alongside Lawson in the backcourt; he's an effective scorer, but not up to Lawson's standard. Danny Green is another very strong player, shooting 65.9 eFG% and providing a solid defensive presence as well. Roy Williams would surely like to see Green get to the free throw line more, he hasn't taken many foul shots this year. Deon Thompson starts in the frontcourt, and shoots nearly 60% while picking up over 6-and-a-half rebounds a game, though he is the team's weakest free throw shooter. 6-10 Freshman Ed Davis plays just 20 minutes a game, but leads the team in rebounds and blocks, and is a decent secondary offensive option.  Marcus Ginyard has made his return from a foot injury, but hasn't yet found his form.

Coming into the season, a lot of the talk around Wake Forest was about its two dynamic big men, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu. So far, though, the Deacons' best player has been in the back court, where sophomore Jeff Teague sits second in the ACC in points and steals, and fifth in assists. Teague is making more than 50% of his three-point attempts, and doing pretty well from two as well. He does struggle with turnovers on occasion, but he's still a dynamic player who looks like a potential all-ACC pick right now. Now, when I say Teague's been the Deacons' best player, that's not meant to diminish the play of Johnson and Aminu, who have both been excellent. Aminu won his second ACC Rookie of the Week honor for his strong performance last week, and has been a very good inside scorer while also leading Wake in blocks and rebound. Johnson's play has also been good, his numbers are similar to Aminu's, and the two combine to be one of the nation's best tandems on the inside. Wake also has a third productive big man in 7-footer Chas McFarland, an excellent offensive rebounder who's another player talented at both scoring and getting to the free throw line. Guard L.D. Williams is the fifth starter, but isn't particularly effective, needing to cut down on his turnovers and three attempts, as he shoots under 25% from behind the arc. Harvey Hale is a good outside shooting option off the bench, while Ishmael Smith has not been an effective shooter, but averages 3.5 assists a game in less than 20 minutes. Tony Woods and David Weaver are a pair of 6-11 players who serve as good backups for the trio of frontcourt players.

I expect a close, high-scoring, entertaining game, with the Heels having just enough to take a narrow victory. Wake will be able to cause the UNC offense problems, but Wake has not faced a team that defends in transition and in the interior as well as the Tar Heels, and it'll have trouble scoring enough to pull off the win.

Winner: North Carolina       Margin: 2-6