Five Things to Watch as UNC Travels to Gonzaga: Bacot, Brooks and Better Defense

Brant Wilkerson-New

North Carolina looks to snap its three-game losing streak tonight when it meets No. 2 Gonzaga, and the Tar Heels will have their work cut out as Cole Anthony is set to miss his second straight game as he recovers from an arthroscopic knee procedure.

Here’s what to watch for as the Tar Heels (6-4) and Bulldogs (11-1) get together at 9 p.m. (ESPN):

Bet on Bigs

Without Anthony in the lineup, it’s clear that Carolina’s offense is best run through the post, with Armando Bacot and Brooks seeing an increased role.

The two combined for 24 field goal attempts in Sunday’s loss to Wofford, as Brooks went 8/10 and Bacot was 2/14 in what was almost assuredly the worst shooting day of his career.

The goal vs. Gonzaga will be to get 30 or more of those attempts, and based on the law of averages, it’s probable the Tar Heels can convert more than half of those.

The issue, as always, is that the opponent has a vote. In this case, Gonzaga has a sizable front line in Filip Petrusev (6-11), Killian Tillie (6-10) and Drew Timme (6-10).

Regardless of the defensive challenge, there’s enough evidence that Bacot and Brooks are a better bet than Carolina’s other options.

No Open Shots?

The Carolina defense was a complete mess on Sunday, allowing a Wofford team that is wholly reliant on 3-pointers to get one open look after another.

Not only does Gonzaga have the height to make Carolina pay in the post, but if those big men are able to find open shooters on the wings, the nation’s fourth-best offense could make it a long night for the Tar Heels.

Both Corey Kispert (40.3 percent) and Joel Ayayi (40 percent) have made more than 20 3-pointers, while guard Ryan Woolridge has hit 10 of his 18 attempts from beyond the arc this season.

The X-Factor for the Zags could be Tillie, who at 36 percent from 3-point range, will be able to draw one of Carolina’s big men out of the lane, taking away a rebounder and rim protector.

Keeling Coming?

It wasn’t perfect, but Christian Keeling again showed some flashes of his offensive capabilities on Sunday as he finished with eight points, nine rebounds and two turnovers in 20 minutes.

Keeling scored off the bounce and in catch-and-shoot situations, but his real strengths come through when he puts the ball on the floor and creates.

The problem with that to this point has been poor judgment with silly passes and over-dribbling leading to Carolina’s highest turnover rate.

Keeling did a better job of that on Sunday, and although he wasn’t immune to mistakes, he appeared to take a step in his overall comfort level.

Getting the point

K.J. Smith got the start at the point on Sunday and finished with seven points, while Jeremiah Francis gave the Tar Heels solid minutes as a distributor.

While they certainly don’t pack the scoring punch or ability of Anthony to beat defenders one-on-one, Francis and Smith both presided over a Carolina attack that moved the ball at a high level and finished with the season’s highest rate of assists, with 17 on 23 field goals.

Pierce’s Play

Justin Pierce needs to take a step back and just play basketball.

The graduate transfer’s offense has been inconsistent all season, but until recently, he’s been able to make an impact as a rebounder.

Over the past two games, Pierce has provided nothing – 0/4 from the field, four rebounds and one airballed free throw.

A good shooter throughout his career, the free throw was a sign of just how much Pierce is overthinking things right now. He’s been at his best when he’s hit the boards and let his game flow from there.

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