There are certain games that I can made an educated guess about. Often, I am wrong. On Saturday, I was right about how the first-ever ACC match up of Syracuse and North Carolina at the Carrier Dome would go. The Tar Heels had introduced some doubt into the proceedings by beating Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky. Each team had been highly rated by the polls (and please don't get me started about how meaningless the polls are ... I can go on for days), so it went to figure that the Tar Heels would up their game and possibly knock off another team favored by the AP, despite losing their first two conference games to Wake Forest and Miami. I did not think that would happen.
I enjoy watching teams go against Syracuse because you know exactly what they are going to do on defense. The key is how opponents attack the zone. I think there are three ways and they are each quite difficult to accomplish: teams can shoot over the zone (this worked for Villanova two weeks ago at the start of the game as well as Michigan and Trey Burke last year in the Final Four), they can run at every opportunity so that Syracuse does not have time to set up their defense (this can not be accomplished in most instances when the Orange are converting baskets), and they can have quick passing to the soft spots in the zone (Louisville did this last year with Gorgui Dieng at the top of the paint). I didn't think North Carolina had enough shooters to hit point A, but they could run (coach Roy Williams is known for pushing the pace) and could use their length inside to create mismatches. I didn't think it would happen, but at least it made the game intriguing.
UNC opened up well and had an 8-2 lead due to the nice play of James Michael McAdoo. The 6-10 forward may have been a lottery pick in last year's draft based on his size and skill, but he has been exposed as just a decent college player. I think his upside is a slightly less productive Tyler Hansbrough if he stays on Tobacco Road. McAdoo scored eight of the Tar Heels' first 10 points and finished the game with 15 points, nine rebounds, and three steals. He was just 1-of-6 from the free throw line. Marcus Paige was the only other UNC player who scored in double digits (he finished with 17) and looks to be a potential reserve guard in the NBA, despite being undersized for the next level.
After the fast start, reality set in for UNC and the zone began to take over. It is nearly impossible to score in half court sets around the rim against the Orange. Syracuse also kept the Tar Heels from running by corralling offense rebounds aplenty. Rakeem Christmas and Jerami Grant pulled in four offensive rebounds apiece and combined for 20 rebounds total. Grant looks like he has some offensive skills as well and the 6-8 sophomore could be a player to keep an eye on after C.J. Fair moves on. Fair is a very smooth offensive performer who looks like he could develop into a professional small forward (somewhat like Donte Greene had he stayed in school). Freshman Tyler Ennis can attack the basket and has nice court vision. The Orange won despite Trevor Cooney who missed 10 3-pointers, but did snatch five steals as part of the perimeter zone.
With Duke hitting an early conference season lull, it looks like the ACC is Syracuse's to lose. As in any 14-team conference, there is plenty of depth and a variety of playing styles. Still, it is hard to imagine any of the other teams in the conference coming to the Carrier Dome and going home with a win. The Orange will have to be beaten on the road, but upcoming games at BC, Miami, and Wake Forest seem winnable. For UNC, will they be able to pull it together and get in the tournament? I think that is a legitimate question for a team that has now lost to Belmont, UAB, Texas, and Wake Forest. They will need to come up with some solid conference wins to build up their resume. They have enough size to make an interesting run, but opponents are not going to roll over for Carolina blue.