Wake Forest will open up ACC play on Saturday, Dec. 30 as the Deacs travel to Chapel Hill to face the defending National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels.
We sat down with Jack Leland of The Daily Tar Heel ahead of Saturday’s game to learn more about this North Carolina team.
KYLE TATICH: What did North Carolina learn about its team during non-conference play?
JACK LELAND: North Carolina learned its strengths and weaknesses during non-conference play. UNC has traditionally been a front court-led team, but this year, it’s clear the guards are the team’s strength.
KT: Has it been a surprise to see Luke Maye emerge as the team’s leading scorer? How has his game evolved from last year?
JL: In my opinion, Maye is the nation’s most improved player. I don’t think anyone was predicting he would play so well this year. The difference from last year is 100 percent confidence. He is taking and knocking down threes, posting up and playing defense with the mindset that he can dominate. Last year, he was just trying to not fall behind while coming off the bench.
KT: Despite losing Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley, Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks, this North Carolina team has seemingly found early success. What is this team’s identity and how is it different from last year’s National Championship squad?
JL: Last year’s team was led by those dominant big guys. We led the nation in rebounding and were incredibly deep in the frontcourt, bringing Tony Bradley off the bench. This year, the veterans on the team play in the backcourt, with Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II being the leaders. Those guys have emerged as our go-to players, and Kenny Williams has become a 3-point sniper and excellent passer.
KT: Joel Berry used the word “effort” to make sense of North Carolina’s 79-75 loss to Wofford. Was it as simple as effort or was there something more to this loss against the Terriers?
JL: That makes sense. UNC has the tendency to play down to its opponents, and it overlooked Wofford. They played a few days before Christmas, and the players’ minds were certainly on something else. Roy Williams will definitely use this game as an example, and we shouldn’t see that from UNC again this year.
KT: Graduate transfer Cameron Johnson has played just two games so far for the Heels. How does he fit in with this team and what are the expectations for him moving forward?
JL: UNC fans don’t know what to expect from Johnson, as he played for an awful Pittsburgh team. However, I expect he will work his way into a position as an offensive focal point. Johnson can knock down 3’s and play lockdown perimeter defense. He is one of the best players on the team, and it will show going forward.
KT: In last year’s meeting between the Heels and the Deacs, the game came down to the final minute. Do you anticipate this one being just as competitive?
JL: I don’t. Wake isn’t as good as last year’s team, and this game’s in Chapel Hill. UNC will be anxious to start the ACC slate well, as its next game is in Tallahassee against a good FSU team.
KT: North Carolina will win if…
JL: It takes care of business. Another Wofford-like effort can’t happen.
KT: Wake Forest will win if…
JL: A miracle happens. I haven’t seen anything that suggests Wake can beat a team of UNC’s caliber. Then again, you could say the same about Wofford.
KT: Give me a score prediction.
JL: 85-63, UNC.
Before Wake Forest’s 79-60 loss to Tennessee, it had won six straight, playing improved basketball from earlier in the season.
No. 13 North Carolina has proven thus far that it is still an elite program, despite losing key pieces to its National Championship team a year ago. Similar to the Deacs, the Heels lack depth in the front court and will mostly rely on the play of their guards.
Expect Wake Forest’s Bryant Crawford to have a big game in the Smith Center. Crawford loves to play the “blue bloods”. Last year, in his three games against either Duke or UNC, Crawford averaged 23 points and five assists. And in his first and only career game in Chapel Hill, Crawford scored 18 points, playing 32 minutes as a freshman.
Wake Forest will face its hardest test of the season to begin ACC play and will need to shoot the ball well, stay out of foul trouble and limit the opportunities players like Kenny Williams and Joel Berry II have from beyond the arc.
Prediction: North Carolina 89, Wake Forest 81.