SOUTH FLORIDA — Welcome to lovely Plantation, Fla., where in just a few hours I’ll be making my way to Coral Gables for No. 8 North Carolina’s game tonight at Miami. Three things to watch while the Tar Heels and Hurricanes meet for a second time:
The Tar Heels’ bench. As I wrote here in this story in the paper this morning, depth was the least of Roy Williams’ concerns earlier this season. Now the bench is among the biggest question marks for UNC with six games to play in the regular season.
Dexter Strickland’s season-ending injury at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19, of course, forced former sixth-man Reggie Bullock into the starting lineup. Since then no one has emerged to take over that role of dependable sixth-man, though freshman James Michael McAdoo has made strides.
Fellow freshman P.J. Hairston, meanwhile, is questionable for the game tonight. He sat out the Heels’ 70-52 victory against Virginia on Saturday while he rested his sore left foot. Hairston has been limited in practice this week, though he did practice more on Tuesday than he did on Wednesday. Whether he plays tonight will depend a lot on how he feels going through warm-ups.
Bottom line, though, is this: The Tar Heels need more production from their bench. That production doesn’t necessarily have to come in the form of points, Williams said earlier this week, but UNC’s reserves have to provide something when they’re out there. McAdoo, Justin Watts and Stilman White were solid against Virginia, and they’ll need to continue that upward trend.
UNC’s perimeter defense against Miami’s shooters. The Hurricanes made just 3 of their 16 3-point attempts the first time these teams played, but Miami remains one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the ACC. They rank fourth in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (35.6 percent) and third in 3-point attempts and 3-pointers made.
The three Miami players who have attempted the most 3-pointers on the team are all shooting at least 34.2 percent from 3-point range. And that doesn’t include 6-foot-11 forward Kenny Kadji, who has made 45.2 percent of his 3’s (19-for-42).
The Hurricanes’ shooting ability wasn’t a factor the first time these teams played, but Miami will need it to be tonight to have a chance of pulling off the upset. In fact, that loss earlier this season against the Heels represented Miami’s lowest point-per-possession output of the season.
The Hurricanes scored a season-low .79 points per possession, and they also turned it over on 23.9 percent of their possessions – also a season-worst.
The battle in the middle. One could make a sound argument that no one in the ACC has played as well as North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller has during conference play. He is averaging 19 points and 10.8 rebounds per game in league games, and he has been UNC’s most consistently dominant player since the start of conference play.
But Zeller will be challenged by Miami’s Reggie Johnson, who’s a different player than the one who came through the Smith Center earlier this season. At that point, Johnson was still recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of Miami’s first nine games.
It was clear during the first meeting between UNC and Miami that Johnson was still working his way back into shape, and even then he finished with a respectable 12 points and nine rebounds. Since then, though, Johnson’s stamina has improved, as has his production.
Johnson scored 27 points and had 12 rebounds in the Hurricanes’ surprising victory against Duke, and he’s a physical challenge for anyone who steps in his way. Zeller has gone a long way recently toward shedding the perception that he’s soft, but he’ll face a difficult test tonight.
David Scott has been with the Observer for 28 years and has written about ACC, SEC and other college sports in the Charlotte region. He covers Wake Forest, South Carolina and college soccer for the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer.
J.P. Giglio covers the ACC for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1997, and the Observer.
Andrew Carter covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the Observer and News & Observer.
Laura Keeley covers the Duke Blue Devils for the Observer and News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter.
Chip Alexander covers the Carolina Hurricanes and college football for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1979, and the Observer.
Luke DeCock has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist for the Observer and News & Observer in August 2008.
Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining the sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.