Davidson’s recent history against UNC is lot like the A-10’s performance against strong out of conference competition this season: a lot of close games, but not much to show for it in the win column.
In 2007-2008, Davidson lost to UNC 72-68. In retrospect, these teams were pretty evenly matched. This was the season that the core squad of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, and Deon Thompson made it the Final Four (winning it all the next season). The Davidson squad was led by a skinny shooting guard named Stephen Curry. UNC came into the game #1 in the country. Davidson led for much of the second half propelled by Curry who had 24 points despite an off-shooting night from behind the arc and Jason Richards who 12 points and 8 assists. The game was tied going into final television timeout, before UNC pulled out a four point victory. Both teams made NCAA tournament runs: Davidson made it to the Elite Eight as Stephen Curry became a household name overnight while UNC would make it the Final Four. Davidson missed a three point at the buzzer against the eventual national champion Kansas; UNC would be pulverized by the Jayhawks a round later.
Since that season, UNC has undeniably had the stronger squad in each matchup. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in Tar Hell blowouts in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. But Davidson has kept it close in a number of games. In 2013-2014, a 4-7 Davidson team went into Chapel Hill and had a shot to win the game in the final seconds of regulation before falling in overtime. Two years ago, Davidson was within three of UNC with two minutes to go against a Tar Heels squad that would later win the national championship. Last year, Davidson got absolutely demolished on the boards (54-23) but somehow kept it close throughout before falling by 10.
Davidson has the stronger backcourt of the two teams. Perhaps this is a hot take, but it shouldn’t be. Kellan Grady had 18 points last year against UNC, and this year has become the Cats leading scorer while shooting 52% from the floor as a guard. Jon Axel Gudmundsson put up 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists against UNC in last season’s matchup. Combined the pair are putting up 38 points, 10 boards, 7 assists, and three 3 steals per game while shooting 50% from the field, 85% at the charity stripe, and 39% from deep. Carter Collins has likely been the best bench player in the A-10 filling in for these two. Luke Frampton, Davidson’s nominal small forward, is really another shooting guard.
Coby White has certainly been an impressive freshman point guard for the Tar Heels, and Mark Titus has proclaimed White one of his favorite freshman in the country. White has looked great in a number of games for Coach Roy Williams, though he did look flustered against Kentucky. Kenny Williams is a solid player but is only shooting 37% from the field and 26% from deep. Seventh Woods has shown some promise this year but is still averaging only five points per game. Advantage Davidson.
The frontcourt is a different story. UNC starts three players that are at least 6’8, Davidson starts only one player above 6’6. While Davidson’s Austrian freshman Luke Brajkovic has shown some remarkable post prowess for a freshman, UNC’s frontcourt will have a significant size, speed, and strength advantages over the Cats. Luke Maye had 24 points and 17 rebounds last year, and Peyton Aldridge was a better cover for him than anyone on the Cats current roster. Players with Cam Johnson’s size, shooting, and athleticism do not exist in the A-10. Grady will probably draw this assignment and will have to hold his own if the Cats are going to make this a game.
Davidson will also need to crash the boards as a team if they are to have any hope. They cannot get outrebounded by 31 as they did last year. Nathan Ekwu, despite his struggles on the offensive end, may get more minutes against the Tar Heels because he brings interior athleticism that the Cats otherwise lack. Brajkovic will need to stay out of foul trouble. The less Cam Johnson and Nassir Little share the floor, the better for Davidson. If the game remains close, expect Gudmundsson and Grady to play at least 38 minutes and possibly all 40. The duo will need to score 40 points, and perhaps even more importantly, grab about 15 rebounds for the Cats to have a shot.
I expect in the end this game will be more of the same for the A-10 and Davidson: close, but no cigar. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.
Final prediction: UNC 87- Davidson 81