North Carolina has recently learned the value of winning ugly, of grinding out victories that were more difficult than they might have appeared they’d be on the scouting report.
There was the less-than-aesthetically pleasing win against Virginia Tech last weekend, when the Tar Heels were so sloppy they prompted coach Roy Williams to add a previously unscheduled practice the next day.
There was the closer-than-expected 78-74 victory against Florida State on Saturday.
“We’ve got 11 more ACC games,” Williams said after that one, “and if you’re not going to grind it out in this league, you’re going to get your tail beat.”
Now comes another challenge that will likely test the Tar Heels’ patience, and their aptitude for winning ugly. Few things, after all, rarely come easily against Syracuse – which will visit the Smith Center on Monday night – and its vaunted 2-3 zone.
This hasn’t been a great – or even very good – season for the Orange, which lost Saturday at home against Miami. It appears Syracuse has significant work to do to ensure a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Nonetheless, the Orange’s zone and its slow, plodding offensive pace, continue to make life difficult on opponents. Syracuse is holding teams to a field goal percentage of 43.5, which ranks 18th nationally.
To beat the zone, teams usually rely on the outside shot. A good idea, in theory, but the Orange is holding the opposition to 29.2 percent shooting from the 3-point line, which ranks 20th nationally.
Then there’s the pace. Few teams play as quickly as UNC prefers – and Williams has often said UNC doesn’t play close to as fast as he’d like – but Syracuse is on the opposite end. Games involving the Orange average 65.6 possessions, which ranks 168th nationally.
Outside of two overtime games, Syracuse has allowed an opposing team to score 70 points just once. That happened Nov. 20 in a 73-59 loss against California.
Points have been hard to come by against the Orange, which held UNC well below its average a season ago during Syracuse’s 57-45 victory at the Carrier Dome.
Those 45 points were the fewest during Williams’ head coaching tenure at UNC, and they were tied for the fewest UNC has scored since the 1985-86 season, when college basketball introduced the shot clock.
So a free-flowing, up-and-down game – the kind the Tar Heels prefer – is not likely to happen Monday night. That might not be a bad thing, given UNC’s recent success in grind-it-out games.
“You have to be able to grind games out because there’s not going to be every game you’re playing well, your offense is clicking,” said guard Marcus Paige. “Things don’t always go the way as planned. Somebody might come in and drop 35 (points).
“You have to be able to handle adversity and I think grinding it out is a good term to just describe the way you have to play every possession, compete and not let the flow of the game affect us.”