Storylines: Tar Heels at Tennessee

Storylines: Tar Heels at Tennessee

After more than a week-long break for final exams, UNC basketball will face its second ranked opponent of the year in Tennessee Sunday in Knoxville. The No. 20 Volunteers are 7-1, with their only loss coming to No. 1 Villanova.

About the Volunteers

Tennessee returns five of its top seven scorers from a 16-16 season. Forward Grant Williams, a Charlotte native, leads Tennessee in scoring at 16.1 points per game.

The Vols have played two ranked teams this year in Villanova (a nine-point loss in the Battle 4 Atlantis) and Purdue (a three-point win). Their best wins so far have been over the Boilermakers and NC State. Tennessee hasn’t lost at home this year (4-0).

Players to Watch

Like the Tar Heels, the Volunteers are balanced in their scoring attack. Williams is the focal point, but Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden all average double digits in scoring.

Williams will be Carolina’s main concern on defense. Frontcourt starters Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks will have their hands full with the sophomore, who scored 20 points against Villanova and Purdue’s talented forwards.

UNC has struggled defending the three this year, and Tennessee has some sharpshooters from deep. Schofield, Turner and Bowden all average around or above 40 percent from deep, and the Vols will look to play inside-out basketball. Carolina’s ability to defend the line will be key.

Storylines

Hostile environment

This will be UNC’s first true road test of the year. The Heels have played at Stanford and on a neutral court against Davidson, Arkansas and Michigan State, but Tennessee will be a much more intimidating atmosphere. Thompson-Boling Arena will at full capacity and raucous as Volunteer supporters will be rooting for a home upset.

Carolina must be careful to not let the game slip away early as it did against Indiana early in the season last year. The Heels need to get some easy buckets in the paint and defend the perimeter to start the contest. If they don’t, overcoming a large deficit in a rowdy arena may be too much to ask.

Carolina three-point shooting

Carolina has traditionally been a frontcourt-led team, overpowering opponents down low with rebounds and easy baskets. Three-pointers have been a nice bonus when they come. This year, three-point shooting was a question mark coming into the season with the injuries to Cameron Johnson and Joel Berry II. With Berry II and the rest of the backcourt leading the way, though, perimeter shooting has been the offensive go-to.

In their last competition, the The Tar Heels made 16 three-pointers against Western Carolina, tied for the most ever under Roy Williams. If UNC can continue to be hot from deep, they will be a tough opponent for anyone. Add Johnson to the mix when he comes back from a torn meniscus, and the Heels will be as well-balanced as ever. The Heels will need to be hot from deep again to beat Tennessee.

Rick Barnes vs Carolina

If you make enemies with Dean Smith, you’ve made enemies with all of UNC. Rick Barnes, who has coached Tennessee since 2015, was the head man at Clemson for four years in the 1990s. He and Smith butted heads when the two shared heated words throughout the ’95 regular season. In the ACC Tournament that year, they got into an intense argument near the end of the quarterfinal that nearly became a fistfight.

Barnes left for Texas a couple of years later, where he stayed for 17 seasons before taking over at Tennessee. Roy Williams was the coach at Kansas at the time. Nevertheless, Barnes and UNC still share an unfriendly history, and Carolina fans have not forgotten. The coaches won’t talk about it, but bad blood will still course through the veins. The coaching battle will be intense and strategized, and whoever comes out on top will win the game.

Prediction

North Carolina is a better basketball team than Tennessee. They were better than Indiana last year, though. Sometimes talent is overpowered by motivation. The Volunteers will be pushed by a loud fan base and will ride the support to a close win. 76-70, Tennessee.