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Joe Boozell | | December 16, 2017

North Carolina vs. Tennessee: Preview, key questions for Sunday

  Joel Berry's leadership will be crucial when North Carolina takes on Tennessee.

Let’s dive into what figures to be a tough non-conference showdown for the defending national champions.

Can North Carolina return to its offensive rebounding roots?

The Tar Heels reached the past two national championship games in part because they retrieved an astonishing number of their own misses. They finished third in offensive rebounding rate in 2015-16, and first last season. Having an off shooting night? No worries. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and the crew were there to clean up the mess. Part of the reason the Tar Heels have been so dominant in tournament play is because they were the rare team that didn’t need outside shots to fall in order to win.

This version of UNC is really good, but it’s built differently than those teams. North Carolina toggles between inexperienced freshmen at center, and though Luke Maye is a great rebounder and all-around player, the Tar Heels don’t have the automatic size and athletic advantage they used to. UNC ranks 20th in offensive rebounding rate this year — still good, but not extraordinary. Shots can hit or miss; size is size. It doesn’t vary from game to game.

The easiest way to beat Tennessee is by collecting second-chance opportunities. The Volunteers have the nation’s No. 18 defense, but they rank 289th in defensive rebounding rate. That’s bound to happen when your two best frontcourt players are 6-5. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are feisty and talented. But when you’re that undersized, you can only do so much.

Maye needs to feast on the interior, and UNC needs one of Garrison Brooks or Sterling Manley to be a factor in Knoxville. By game’s end, North Carolina’s offensive rebound total will likely be a good indicator of how the game went.

Can Tennessee get anything from its point guards?

James Daniel is the only Volunteer who averages at least four assists per game, but he plays 20 minutes a night and is shooting 36 percent from the floor. Tennessee is an outstanding shooting team – the Vols are canning 41 percent of their 3s. They have plenty of guys capable of handling the ball, but no one who’s great at it. UT ranks 187th in the country in turnover rate – too many crunch-time possessions this year have resulted in live-ball turnovers.

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With that said, Tennessee’s “big” guys are so tough to guard because of their versatility. Schofield and Williams, constantly battling on the other end against behemoths, can torch those guys on offense thanks to their dribble-drive abilities. Williams makes the Volunteers go — as a nominal center, he’s leading the team in scoring and is third in assists. He’s the reason why Tennessee can play a five-out style, and helps mask the fact that it doesn’t have a great point guard.

But life would be much easier for Williams and Schofield if Daniel or Jordan Bone (shooting 37 percent) could run the offense consistently and hit spot-up 3s. Tennessee’s frontcourt and wings can make the UNC defense scramble, but the Vols’ weakest link needs to be able to carve up a scattered unit when the ball finds him. That could decide the game.

Which Joel Berry shows up?

Speaking of point guards – Berry hasn’t gotten off to a great start. He’s averaging 16 points, but is shooting just 36 percent from the floor. He’s also at 36 percent from 3 – which is fine – but that means he hasn’t finished well in the restricted area. Considering how Maye has opened up the Tar Heel offense, that’s surprising. There’s more room to operate for Berry than in years past. What gives?

For starters, he’s not really looking to drive. Playing through a multi-dimensional big man in the high post is new territory for UNC. But it’s working — North Carolina’s offensive rating is 116.9, but it spikes to 125.9 (a mark that would comfortably lead the nation) when Maye is on the floor. It’s a different story with Berry – UNC scores at about the same rate whether he’s in the game or not.

This is likely nothing more than a rough patch. Berry has been one of the best players on two Final Four teams. But in North Carolina’s second true road game of the season, he probably can’t shoot 35 percent and expect his team to win.

Will Williams and Schofield force North Carolina to abandon the two-big lineup?

North Carolina will play Maye at center more once Cam Johnson returns. But for now, he’s usually paired with a true five. Considering what we know about Williams and Schofield, it might be in UNC’s best interest to go small.

If Brooks and Manley aren’t using their size advantage to wreak havoc in the low post, what purpose do they serve? To be blunt, probably none — so look for the Tar Heels to get them touches early and see how they fare. North Carolina is shooting almost 40 percent from 3 – its bigs aren’t as dominant as in years past, but it has some dudes on the perimeter. If the Tar Heels fight Tennessee’s perimeter fire with some small-ball fire of their own, they are probably the more talented bunch.

That would be out of character for Roy Williams, but it could be his best shot to win. Keep an eye on UNC’s lineup construction.

Score prediction: North Carolina 78, Tennessee 76

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