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Game Preview: Wake Forest vs North Carolina

The Tar Heels are undefeated in conference play

William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Louisville game, I noted that Wake Forest needed to make it look like its own practice for 40 minutes. That the Deacs did, raining down 18 three-pointers, scoring 1.3 points per possession and never trailing. For the most part, it was Wake Forest’s offense at its best, and it only got better with the return of Damari Monsanto, who drilled four threes.

Winning by 25 was an important margin for the Deacons, who now sit at No. 36 in KenPom and 42 in NET, the highest they’ve been end-of-day in both metrics all season. Getting back on track with that win was huge; now Wake can really shake things up. North Carolina awaits in the Dean Dome. A Wake Forest win there would be an incredible resume-booster.

Game Info

Teams: Wake Forest (13-5, 5-2 ACC), North Carolina (15-3, 7-0 ACC)

Date: Monday Jan. 22

Time: 7pm

Location: Dean Smith Center; Chapel Hill, NC

Broadcast: ESPN

History

In Steve Forbes’ four matchups against the Tar Heels as head coach of the Deacons, Wake Forest has never lost at home, but also never been victorious on the road. In the away losses, the average margin is just eight. In terms of Monday’s game, KenPom has UNC as 10-point favorites.

The Metrics

In short, North Carolina is a very impressive basketball team this year. The Heels’ offense is rated No. 16 in KenPom, yet the defense is even better at No. 5. The team’s effective FG% on offense is 51.8, a bit better than the mean nationally, but it’s averaging an astounding 84 points per game. North Carolina doesn’t turn the ball over often, and moves very fast. The Heels are a fine team from inside the arc, but in the top 100 from three.

On defense, UNC’s opponents’ effective FG% is very low at 45.6%. The Heels defend the three-point line very well, but don’t turn teams over often.

North Carolina is low in bench minutes, perhaps due to its D1 experience on the team — No. 5 in college basketball.

The Tar Heels are No. 7 in both NET and KenPom at the time of publication.

The Games

Q1: 4-3

Q2: 3-0

Q3: 3-0

Q4: 5-0

Best Win: 100-92 victory over Tennessee (Nov. 29, Home)

Troubling Loss: None

The Lineup

As noted before, North Carolina is highly experienced, leading to a tight lineup with a core starting five and solid helpers off the bench. The Heels boast two of the best players in the ACC — Armando Bacot and RJ Davis — with the latter likely being the frontrunner for conference Player of the Year.

The Starters

G RJ Davis

An everyday starter for the Tar Heels, Davis is averaging over 34 minutes in conference play. He’s scoring over 20 points per North Carolina’s 18 games this season, with nearly half of his shot attempts coming from behind the arc. To boot, he’s making those threes at a 41% clip. Additionally, Davis is an impressive free-throw shooter, going 71-of-75 from the line.

G Elliot Cadeau

In 23 minutes per game, the freshman guard isn’t shooting the ball often, but has a fine FG%. He’s mainly been a feeder; Cadeau is one assist above Davis for the most on the team. A downside: where Davis makes nearly every free throw, Cadeau misses nearly half.

G Cormac Ryan

More than half of Ryan’s shot attempts are from deep, where he’s averaging 29%. He adds 11.1 points per game in 28.8 minutes, and is a key part of the lineup on both ends of the court.

F Harrison Ingram

Ingram is a strong three-point shooter for his size — 6’7” — while averaging over 31 minutes per game. He boasts an impressive assist-to-turnover rate and brings down over two offensive rebounds per game. Ingram also only trails Davis in steals on the team, but struggles even more than Cadeau from the free-throw line.

F Armando Bacot

Of North Carolina’s starters, Bacot is the only one with a field-goal percentage above 50, good for 14.6 points per game. He averages an impressive 10.4 rebounds per contest, including 53 on offense this season. UNC gets about two blocks a game out of Bacot.

The Depth Pieces

G Seth Trimble

Trimble averages 17 minutes off the bench for the Tar Heels. Of his 17 three-point attempts, he’s made nine, good for a 53% hit rate.

F Jae’Lyn Withers

The grad has one of the best field goal percentages on the team, but struggles with fouls and turnovers. At 6’9”, he provides some extra height for the Heels.

F Jalen Washington

Washington plays a shade under 10 minutes per game, with his time on court dipping in conference. He’s similar to Withers in that he does well scoring at the bucket, but also racks up a fair bit of fouls.

G Paxson Wojcik and F Zayden High

Both have played in all or nearly every ACC game for the Tar Heels, but each averages under five total minutes.

Essex’s Take/Keys to the Game

It’s been a natural progression with Wake Forest. I thought the addition of Efton Reid following his waiver approval turned the Deacs into a potential tournament team. With the return of Damari Monsanto from last year’s season-ending injury, I believe Wake Forest is a team that can threaten the ACC title and make some noise in the dance.

Of course, none of that has come to fruition yet, we’re just under two months away from March Madness. Wake Forest is in position, sure, but a lot is still to come and a lot must happen for the Deacs to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2017.

Wake Forest wins at home, it’s 11-0 in the Joel this season to be exact. Where the Deacs must improve is on the road. Additionally, Wake would really appreciate a marquee win in the next few weeks. Defeating North Carolina at the Dean Dome certainly qualifies.

As for keys to the game, it’s North Carolina, so there’s a few more than normal.

UNC doesn’t turn teams over. Keep it that way.

After turning it over 20, 17 and 16 times in three-straight games, Wake Forest got back on track against Louisville, recording eight. Despite boasting an otherwise strong defense, North Carolina is 264th in causing turnovers. The last thing the Deacs want to do is play into the worst part of the Heels’ defense.

Stay out of foul trouble

Wake Forest did a fantastic job of reducing fouls Saturday — Zach Keller led the team with just three. In several away games this year, most notably Boston College and NC State, fouls were a factor for the Deacs. The whistle is unlikely to go Wake Forest’s way in Chapel Hill, so avoiding the easy calls is critical.

Win the paint

Efton Reid vs Armando Bacot. Andrew Carr vs Harrison Ingram. That’s two big-time battles down low. Both Bacot and Ingram can score at high levels, as can Reid and Carr. For the Deacs, it’s imperative that the bigs play with physicality. But, as referenced above, it needs to be in control. Running the foul count on defense is not an option.

Find a way to slow down RJ Davis

Davis is one of, if not the best players in the conference. He’s averaging over 20 points. Stopping him is a seriously hard task. Who will take him on? Will it be Hunter Sallis, Cam Hildreth or Boopie Miller? Or perhaps a combination? Regardless of who it will be (my guess is Sallis) even slowing down Davis would make a big difference.

Hit the boards

North Carolina is a very good rebounding team, both on offense and defense. The Heels outrebound their opponents by an average of seven each game. Bacot and Ingram are both strong on the offensive boards, so at the very least, protecting rebounds on the defensive end, and thus limiting extra UNC possessions, could be a game-changer.

Silence the crowd early

The Dean Dome is always a tough place to play. It’s even harder when UNC is good. There is no doubt the arena will be packed and loud Monday night. If possible, making an early run could take the wind out of the crowd’s sails.

Additionally, finding a way to silence the crowd internally is big. By that, I mean not letting the noise impact your play, especially on offense. That’s part of playing in a raucous away environment, but reducing its impact is important.

Prediction

On the BOTG Pod, I predicted that Wake Forest would lose a tightly-contested game. That was recorded Thursday night, before the Deacs played Louisville. Before the return of Damari Monsanto.

With Monsanto and his three-pointers, Wake Forest’s offense gets even more dangerous, and the Deacs can target one of UNC’s finest defensive facets — three-point defense.

I truly believe Wake Forest can beat any team when it’s at its best. And, if the Deacs can continue their prolific offense and play solid defense, they have a chance in Chapel Hill. I like a lot of the matchups, too.

So, I’ve changed my mind. With a finally complete lineup, I think Wake Forest is just getting started. They need a marquee win, and I believe they’re going to get one Monday night.

Wake Forest wins 82-78