It’s not often that you can get the North Carolina Tar Heels to bring their super-sized basketball program to your arena, so connoisseurs of the sport in Central Texas are in for a rare treat Saturday.
The third-ranked Tar Heels play the Longhorns at the Erwin Center at 4:15 p.m. (ESPN).
North Carolina brings a program that has:
- Won 2,140 games and lost 767.
- Won 36 ACC regular-season titles.
- Made 31 Sweet 16s.
- Reached 18 Final Fours.
- Won five national championships and been runner-up four times.
North Carolina finished fourth last year in average home attendance with 19,582. Texas was 34th at 11,249 (and that includes tons of no-shows).
This year’s Carolina team was the preseason No. 1 in the country, but star combo guard Marcus Paige suffered a broken right hand in early November and missed the first six games. One of those was a shocking 71-67 loss at Northern Iowa.
Paige is back, and the Tar Heels are rolling, climbing back to No. 3 after falling to No. 9. They’ve been sharpest in their last two games, an 89-81 win over then-No. 2 Maryland in Chapel Hill and a 98-65 stomping of a quality Davidson team. UNC has risen to No. 1 in the Ratings Percentage Index.
The Tar Heels are expecting a tough time against the Longhorns in only their second true road game (the first being the disaster at Northern Iowa).
“They have players who have ‘been there, done that,’ and came here and beat us in our own building,” coach Roy Williams said. “Obviously, they have a new coach, and Shaka (Smart) is gradually implementing his system and there is a freshman component. Neither one of us have our team where we want to be.
“But Javan Felix has played against us, (Isaiah) Taylor has played against us, (Cameron) Ridley has played against us, (Connor) Lammert. So they have experience, too.”
Carolina seems most concerned with Ridley, the 6-foot-9-inch, 285-pound senior center.
“You look at Cameron, he’s averaging 13 points, 9.5 rebounds, playing 24 minutes a game and shooting 73 percent. That’s pretty doggone good,” Williams said. “He’s gonna be a load for us. He is one of the best offensive rebounders there is in college basketball.”
Kennedy Meeks, a 6-9, 265-pound junior from Charlotte, averages 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds and, along with 6-9 senior Brice Johnson (13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg), will be assigned to stop Ridley.
“Ridley is a great player, a strong player,” Meeks said. “He has a soft touch around the basket. There are lots of good things you can say about him.
“The biggest thing for me is getting in good low position, going up to the basket as strong as I can to get ‘and-one’s’ and easy baskets.”
One thing that might surprise Carolina: Texas has not pressured much so far under Smart, who lacks the ideal roster to implement an offshoot of “Havoc” from his VCU days.
“We worked hard on press offense,” Meeks said. “We know Texas will bring a lot of pressure. We’ve worked on that the most because we know it’s coming our way.”
Maybe not, Kennedy.
One player who can handle the pressure is Paige, a senior from Marion, Iowa, who spurned the NBA draft. Paige is averaging 16.5 points and 4.5 assists in his first two games back and has drilled 6 of 10 three-point shots.
Joel Berry filled in pretty well for Paige. The sophomore averaged 12.6 points and 4.2 assists while Paige was out.
“He’s done some good things for us,” William said. “But the guy who took his place is pretty doggone good. Joel’s role changed a little bit now that Marcus is back, but not much because I want him to do the same things as before.”
Carolina has a Texas component. Long, lean swing man Justin Jackson is a 6-8 sophomore from Tomball who is averaging 18.4 points over his last five games.
Williams said Jackson is making progress but needs to stay aggressive. Jackson was named the Tar Heels defensive player of the game against Davidson, the third time he won that honor in the last four outings. Jackson received only one of those awards all of last season.
The Tar Heels are excellent shooters, making 49.2 percent from the field, and have many qualities you see in Final Four teams. But they lack interior toughness and need to defend better on the perimeter. Opposing teams are shooting 37.1 percent from three-point range, 269th in the nation, per KenPom.com.
For all their blue blooded-ness in the sport, the Tar Heels trail this series to the Longhorns 6-3. Texas has won three in a row and six of seven against North Carolina. Williams is 7-5 all-time against the Horns, but 1-4 as the Carolina coach. He did his damage (6-1) against Texas while he was at Kansas.
North Carolina has had much better success in NCAA tournament games at the Erwin Center, where they are 4-0.
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