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Daniel Wilco | | November 28, 2018

North Carolina vs. Michigan prediction: 3 key stats show who will win

Andy Katz breaks down his Power 36 and weekly honors

North Carolina takes on Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night. The Tar Heels lead the series 4-2, but have never played in Ann Arbor before.

We studied the trends and statistics of each team to help us make an informed prediction of who will prevail when they take the court at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.

Here are three keys:

1. This game is going to be a battle of tempo

Through seven games, North Carolina has the 11th-fastest pace in the nation, averaging 79 possessions per 40 minutes. Michigan’s pace is tied for 338th of 353 at 65.8. That’s about as far away as two ranked teams can be.

After their first games, North Carolina hasn’t played a game with a pace under 70, and Michigan hasn’t played one with a pace over 70. Something’s going to have to budge here.

One factor that helps UNC here is the rebounding edge. In a slower game, second-chance points are even more valuable. UNC has the 10th-highest rebounding percentage (collecting 58.7 percent of available rebounds) and 20th-best offensive rebounding percentage (39.1 percent). Michigan ranks 71 and 175 respectively. The pace might be dictated by the Wolverines, but the boards will belong to the Tar Heels.

MORE: A definitive ranking of college basketball’s best rebounding teams this decade

2. We'll see one of the best offenses in the country against one of the best defenses

That slow pace has helped Michigan put together perhaps the best defense in the country. The Wolverines hold opponents to just 73.4 points per 100 possessions — the second-best mark in the country behind Nebraska’s 72.6. 

Through six games, the Wolverines haven’t let a single opponent score more than 61 points. (For reference, Michigan’s football team gave up 62 points to Ohio State last week.) Four of their opponents didn’t break the half-century mark, including No. 8 Villanova, which shot 31.8 percent and had 19 turnovers while losing 73-46. 

The toughest defense the Tar Heels have faced this year came in the first game, on the road against Wofford. The Terriers have the 22nd-best defensive efficiency in the country. Unsurprisingly, that game was UNC’s lowest offensive output on the year — a 78-67 win.

MORE: Gonzaga leaps Kansas; Duke, UNC fall in Andy Katz' Power 36 rankings

But UNC has the No. 10 offense in the country, scoring at a rate of 122.2 points per 100 possessions. Villanova is the only team Michigan has faced with an offensive efficiency ranked in the top 100 (111.0 points per 100 possessions). There, the Wolverines held the reigning champs to 30 points under their season average. Not a great sign for UNC, but when the Tar Heels’ offense gets going, it’s a hard train to stop. 

UNC is the 38th-best team in the country when it comes to true shooting percentage — a stat that measures shooting efficiency while taking the point value for each shot into account — while Michigan is at No. 210. The Tar Heels don’t need too many opportunities to make you hurt.

3. Freshmen will have a huge impact

North Carolina has a deep team, with four different players averaging more than 12 points per game. Five different players that have played every game — Coby White, Cameron Johnson, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, and Garrison Brooks — average more than 20 points per 40 minutes.

Having this type of output from Maye and Johnson was expected for the Tar Heels. But it’s the freshmen who are really stepping up. Against Texas, White went 7-for-10 from beyond the arc en route to 33 points. That’s a team high this season. In his last three games, he’s averaging 22.7 points. And then there’s Little, who is averaging 14.7 points in 19 minutes per game over the last three outings, and providing sparkplug moments like this: 

That’s a powerful dual threat that UNC doesn’t typically get from freshmen.

For the Wolverines, it’s Ignas Brazdeikis. The 6-7 forward has dropped at least 18 points four times this year. Pretty impressive for a guy on a team that averages just 70.8 points per game. If you take away an abnormal 5-point outing against George Washington, Brazdeikis is averaging 17.8 per game. He’s doing it efficiently, too. Against Villanova, Brazdeikis was 7-for-11 from the field and 4-for-4 from the line for 18 points and seven rebounds.


It’s a slower game than the Tar Heels would like, but they limit their turnovers while White and Little score double figures to lead UNC to a 68-63 win.

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