No. 15 UNC (15-4, 4-2) rides a 14-game ACC home winning streak and three-game overall winning streak into a conference clash against Georgia Tech (10-8, 3-2) at the Smith Center on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Tar Heels last played on Tuesday in an 87-79 win over No. 20 Clemson, while the Yellow Jackets lost big at No. 2 Virginia on Thursday.
About the Yellow Jackets
Coach Josh Pastner had a promising first year in 2016-17 after leading Georgia Tech to the NIT finals. The former Memphis head man was named ACC Coach of the Year after the rebuilding Yellow Jackets hovered on the NCAA Tournament bubble all season.
Georgia Tech seemed primed to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2010 after ACC Defensive Player of the Year Ben Lammers and breakout freshman Josh Okogie returned to school. Lammers was voted to the preseason All-ACC team, while Okogie was named a second-teamer.
Instead, despite Lammers’ defense and Okogie’s scoring, Georgia Tech has stumbled to a 10-8 start punctuated by a home loss to 7-12 Grambling State.
Players to Watch
There’s Okogie, Lammers and not much else. Those two are enough to give the Tar Heels at least a small concern, though.
Lammers is possibly the best shot-blocker in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 San Antonio native swats just over three shots per game, the ninth-most nationally. Even more impressive? His 1.83 blocks per foul percentage is second to only 7-foot Anas Mahmoud of Louisville. Lammers protects the rim aggressively while staying off the bench. That’s huge for a Yellow Jacket squad that doesn’t have much depth behind him. In terms of value to a team, Lammers might be the MVP of the conference.
In Okogie, Tech has a pretty fearsome duo. Unlike Lammers (11.7 ppg), Okogie does it on the offensive end. The sophomore is scoring 17.8 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three. Okogie is by far the Yellow Jackets’ most reliable scorer, so if UNC can shut him down, the game could get out of hand quickly.
UNC fans had been waiting all season to see the Cameron Johnson who dropped 24 points and five threes in Chapel Hill as a Pittsburgh Panther last season. They saw him Tuesday. Johnson scored 21 points, including six 3-pointers, in the Tar Heels’ victory over Clemson.
Dominant teams have a dependable third scorer who can carry them in elimination games if the top two guys are cold. Last season, it was Kennedy Meeks. This year’s team has a good three-point shooter in Kenny Williams and a Swiss Army knife in Theo Pinson, but neither are pure scorers. If Johnson can build on his breakout game, he can be the third guy UNC needs to back up Luke Maye and Joel Berry. His continued development will be key to Carolina’s chances of another deep run in March.
After dropping consecutive ACC road games to begin the year 1-2 in the conference, UNC has rebounded with three straight wins. Following a perfect conference record at home last year, Carolina hasn’t lost an ACC game in Chapel Hill since losing to Duke in February 2016. The Tar Heels extended that streak by continuing another streak against Clemson, whom they’ve never lost to at home in 59 games.
There is no such streak against the Yellow Jackets. The Tar Heels have beaten Georgia Tech four straight times at home, but the eventual national champions fell in Atlanta to open the ACC slate last season. Carolina needs to continue its winning ways if they want to keep pace in an uber-competitive ACC, especially considering the Heels’ brutal closing stretch.
Blocks and Boards
UNC’s frontcourt may be unconventional this year, but it’s still the best rebounding team in the country, leading the nation in rebounds and rebounding margin. The Carolina bigs need to be in prime shape against Lammers, who is one of the better rebounders in the conference.
The Tar Heels should also be wary of Lammers when attacking the rim, as he’s one of the best at rejecting shots. UNC’s depth should allow the forwards to tire Lammers and play around him. If they can overpower him in the paint, Tech won’t have a chance.
This one isn’t difficult. UNC is playing possibly its best ball of the season at home against a conference cellar-dweller. Expect Roy Williams to play deep into his bench as this one becomes a blowout. UNC, 86-62.