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Offensive-minded Gonzaga, North Carolina searching for gains defensively

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 14, 2018, 7:06 p.m.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – They are separated by eight spots in the AP rankings and not much more than that in terms of their offensive and defensive disposition.

Or, in today’s analytics vernacular, their efficiency ratings.

No. 4 Gonzaga (9-1), meet No. 12 North Carolina (7-2), two teams with similar profiles, both in need of a win Saturday at the Dean Smith Center.

The Zags are trying to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time since February 2014, when they dropped road games to BYU and San Diego.

North Carolina could use a resume-enhancing win after going 1-2 in marquee nonconference matchups thus far. The Tar Heels lost to Texas and were blown out by Michigan in between a solid win over UCLA.

Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was fighting a nasty cough at his Friday press conference. A victory over Gonzaga counterpart and longtime friend Mark Few would no doubt boost his spirits.

“It’s been 12 days; I can’t get rid of the cough,” Williams said. “I’m just trying to stay away from the players that are playing good and get real close to the ones who are playing bad.”

This is the third version of Gonzaga’s monster game of the week – following the victory over No. 1 Duke in Maui and the setback against No. 7 Tennessee last Sunday in Phoenix – and possibly the last for a while with the West Coast Conference campaign approaching Jan. 5.

UNC faces Kentucky next Saturday, while the Zags will be heavily favored in their four remaining nonconference games.

The numbers demonstrate how these teams like to operate. Both rank in the top five nationally in scoring with the Zags at 94.1 points, less than one point higher than UNC.

They get there in slightly different ways. GU shoots better than 52 percent. The Tar Heels are at 49 percent but elevate their point total by collecting a lot of misses (14.6 offensive boards per game) and capitalizing on opponents’ 15.7 turnovers.

Both squads thrive in the open court, but the Zags, short on guards with essentially a seven-man rotation, don’t have as many bodies as the Tar Heels to handle foul issues or engage in a 40-minute track meet.

The other end of the floor hasn’t been as kind to Gonzaga and North Carolina. The Zags are No. 56 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency, 55 spots below their top-rated offense. The Tar Heels are No. 31.

“You can defend people several ways, steal the ball and go down (the floor) or hold them to a low percentage and not give them second shots,” Williams said. “We’ve been sort of in the middle of everything. We’re still trying to find a way to play defensively that will fit this team.”

UNC gave up 92 and 84 points in its losses. Gonzaga recorded narrow wins while yielding 78, 87, 92 and 79 points. GU’s loss to Tennessee was marked by late-game offensive and defensive struggles. The Zags scored a season-low 73 points, and the Volunteers’ Admiral Schofield scored 25 second-half points.

Both teams are coming off finals week. UNC hasn’t played since a Dec. 5 rout over UNC Wilmington. The Tar Heels only play four games in December.

Adding to Gonzaga’s challenge is the venue. The “Dean Dome” seats 21,750, and visiting teams rarely leave with a win. North Carolina is 200-28 (88.6 winning percentage) at home since the 2005 season. The Tar Heels are 6-1 when entertaining top-five non-ACC foes since 1955, including 4-1 at the Dean Dome, three of those wins under Williams.

This is just the fourth meeting in the series and the first since the Tar Heels’ 71-65 victory in the 2017 national championship.

The return game is next season in Spokane, but there’s a possibility of an additional showdown. Both teams are in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they’re expected to be placed in opposite brackets. The only chance they could meet would be on the third and final day.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, left, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams chat during a television interview at the 2017 Final Four. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Gonzaga coach Mark Few, left, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams chat during a television interview at the 2017 Final Four. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

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