CHAPEL HILL North Carolina has been at its best this season in free-flowing fast-paced games – the kind it encountered in victories against Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State, and the kind it was hoping to play on Wednesday night against Duke.
The Tar Heels, though, went from preparing to play against the Blue Devils, who statistically aren’t up-tempo but don’t avoid running, to preparing to play against Pittsburgh, one of the slowest-paced teams in the nation.
The Panthers’ visit to the Smith Center on Saturday begins UNC’s difficult stretch of four games in eight days – a stretch made possible because of the postponement of its game against Duke, which UNC hosts next on Thursday.
Earlier this week, some of UNC’s players spoke of their desire to force the Blue Devils into a fast-paced game with a high number of possessions. Such games have done the Tar Heels well this season, and they’re 11-3 when they finish a game with at least 70 possessions.
J.P. Tokoto, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, predicted “a lot of high-flying plays” in the Duke game, which was to be played on Wednesday night before a storm left about six inches of snow, paralyzing area roadways.
“Playing against a team that likes to play fast, it’s beneficial for us because that’s what we thrive in – getting out in the open court and everything,” Tokoto said.
Since the postponement of the Duke game, UNC has prepared for a game against Pitt that likely will be among the Tar Heels’ slowest of the season. The Panthers average 63.6 possessions per game, which ranks 334th nationally.
In the Panthers’ past five games, they have finished a game with more than 61 possessions just once – when they had 65 possessions in an overtime victory against Virginia Tech. Pitt prefers to take its time on offense, and defensively they make teams work, as well.
The Panthers rank 40th nationally in field-goal percentage defense, and are holding opposing teams to 40.1 percent shooting from the field. UNC always attempts to create scoring opportunities in transition, before a defense has an opportunity to set itself, and that’s likely to be especially important against Pitt.
“It makes it easier for us to score,” Marcus Paige, the UNC point guard, said earlier this week of his preference for a faster-paced game. “If teams try to slow it down then we have to make an extra effort to try to get the pace up. But if a team wants to run up and down, we have no problem with that, obviously, and it allows us to maybe get some easy baskets.”
Because of the postponement and the rescheduling of the Duke game, UNC is entering its busiest stretch of the season. The Tar Heels will play four games in eight days and the upcoming schedule has an NCAA tournament feel to it, with two games in three days followed by a brief rest and two games in three days again.
Against Pitt, creating a higher-possession game will be key for UNC. Four of the Tar Heels’ seven losses have come in the six games in which they’ve had 66 possessions or fewer. UNC has averaged 71 possessions per game, which ranks second in the ACC.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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