Chapel Hill, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - Attempting to keep pace near the top of the ACC standings, the Syracuse Orange and North Carolina Tar Heels will square off at the Dean E. Smith Center on Monday evening.
Roy Williams' Tar Heels come in with plenty of momentum. North Carolina has won five straight games and 10 of its last 11, with the lone loss being a one- point setback to Notre Dame (71-70). UNC edged out Florida State on Saturday, 78-74, to improve to 16-4 overall and 6-1 in-conference, good for third place in the conference standings, behind Virginia (7-0) and Notre Dame (7-1).
Jim Boeheim's Orange enter this game looking for some more consistency. The team opened league play with four straight wins, but has since dropped two of the last three games, including Saturday's 66-62 decision to Miami-Florida. The loss to the Hurricanes leaves Syracuse at 14-6 overall and 5-2 in the conference.
These two storied programs have met just eight times previously. The series is knotted up at 4-4 thanks to Syracuse's 57-45 victory last year at the Carrier Dome.
It was a close game throughout, but in the end the Orange were unable to hold off the Hurricanes in a four-point loss at home. The setback spoiled a huge game from Rakeem Christmas, who netted a game-high 23 points. Tyler Cooney added 14 points, while Tyler Roberson notched a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds in the loss.
The Orange aren't putting up big offensive numbers this season (68.4 ppg) despite having one of the top players in the league. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Christmas is certainly on his way to all-conference honors, as he ranks second in the league in scoring (18.3 ppg) and fifth in rebounding (8.9 rpg). Offensive balance comes in the form of Cooney (14.1 ppg) and Michael Gbinije (10.7 ppg). The duo have combined for 77 of the team's 98 3-pointers to date. Still, this is a team that dominates defensively in most games. Syracuse's patented zone is once again causing fits for opponents, who are netting just 59.8 ppg on a mere .378 shooting effort.
North Carolina may be one of those teams that can bust through that Syracuse zone and score a lot. The Tar Heels are certainly a talented offensive squad, averaging 79.3 ppg on a healthy .464 shooting. UNC has also imposed its will on the glass, where it outrebounds foes by nearly 10 boards per game (+9.9). Four of the team's five starters are averaging double figures in the scoring column, led by guard Marcus Paige's 13.8 ppg. Big man Kennedy Meeks (6-9, 270) is a load down low, averaging 12.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per outing. Brice Johnson (12.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) is a strong frontcourt option as well, while Justin Jackson (10.3 ppg) and J.P. Tokoto (9.1 ppg) provide even more depth.
The Tar Heels had no answer for FSU's Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who erupted for 35 points, but luckily, UNC got a collection of gritty performances that lifted the team over the visiting Seminoles on Saturday. Leading the charge was Paige and Johnson, who combined for 37 points in the victory. Paige was 6-of-13 from the floor and led the team with 19 points. Johnson was terrific inside, recording a double-double with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Jackson and Meeks got involved offensively as well, tacking on 14 and 12 points, respectively.