No. 9 Unc's Faster Tempo Is Helping The Tar Heels Thrive Entering A Matchup With No. 5 Uconn

North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis directs the team as they play against Tennessee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis directs the team as they play against Tennessee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina coach Hubert Davis is spending much of every game emphatically waving his arm to signal his Tar Heels to go-go-go in pushing the ball upcourt on just about every rebound.

His team is doing a better job of increasing the tempo to start this season than in either of his first two years. That's a key for ninth-ranked UNC entering Tuesday's matchup against fifth-ranked reigning NCAA champion Connecticut in New York's Madison Square Garden, which is the headliner on the week's AP Top 25 schedule.

“We do it in practice, we push the ball in practice, we find the open man,” guard RJ Davis said, adding: "We know our tempo, we know the pace we need to be at, and you can see the benefits from it.”

That game headlines the week's AP Top 25 schedule after North Carolina made the biggest jump of eight spots in Monday's new poll.

Playing fast had long been a key piece of UNC's success under retired Hall of Famer Roy Williams. Hubert Davis' first two teams hadn't been anywhere near that quick in terms of tempo data, but Version 3.0 has taken a leap with a reconfigured roster after last year's no-NCAA-bid flop.

Davis' first two teams hadn't been higher than 96th in KenPom for average possession length (17.0 seconds each time). But this year, UNC is 33rd at 15.6 seconds, a sign of how the Tar Heels have shaken off last year's penchant for allowing possessions to grind to a halfcourt halt.

UNC is also averaging 12.6 fast-break points this year, up from 9.3 last year and 9.1 two years ago.

The arrival of gifted pass-first point guard Elliot Cadeau (24 assists with two turnovers in his last five games) has helped immensely, but the faster pace is running throughout the lineup with the Tar Heels crisply moving the ball around the perimeter or firing sharp outlets to start the break.

After wins against now-No. 17 Tennessee and Florida State last week, Hubert Davis said he wants “the fastest team from free-throw line to free-throw line.”

“I feel like if we get stops and get the rebound, that's when I feel like we've got a good pace in terms of transition,” he said. "You've got wings running, our bigs running down the middle of the floor and pitching the ball ahead.

“In terms of numbers, I don't have a number or metric that I look at. But I can tell whether or not that I feel like we're moving at the pace I want to, whether it's in transition or the halfcourt set.”

ILLINOIS' TOUGH WEEK

The UNC-UConn matchup, the second half of a doubleheader at the Jimmy V Classic, is part of a schedule featuring five ranked-vs.-ranked matchups. And that slate is demanding for No. 20 Illinois in particular.

The Fighting Illini face No. 11 Florida Atlantic in Tuesday's first game at Madison Square Garden, then have a trip to No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday.

HELLO AGAIN

Marquette coach Shaka Smart is getting a reunion with his former Texas program.

The eighth-ranked Golden Eagles will host the 12th-ranked Longhorns on Wednesday night, marking only the second meeting between the programs (the other was in December 1977). As for Smart, he went 109-86 in six seasons at Texas before leaving to become Marquette's coach in 2021.

TESTED AT THE TOP

Arizona now faces the challenge of playing with the target that comes with being No. 1.

The Wildcats rose one spot Monday to top the poll for the first time since the 2013-14 season. There's just one game this week for Tommy Lloyd's team, a visit from No. 23 Wisconsin on Saturday.

After a weekend win against Colgate, Lloyd said the message to his team about playing with the No. 1 ranking would be simple: “Handle it.”

“If you're No. 1," he said, ”you don't start out (up) 5-0."

WATCH LIST

Virginia, Ohio State, TCU and Northwestern top the list of vote-getters among unranked teams. Of that group, only TCU has a chance to face a ranked team this week in hopes of climbing into the next poll.

The Horned Frogs face No. 24 Clemson — which joined the poll Monday — on Saturday in Toronto.

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