The Tar Heels return to non-conference play later tonight, and they face arguably their toughest test of the season, the defending national champions, the UConn Huskies, in the Jimmy V Classic. This is the second straight season that Carolina has played in Madison Square Garden, fulfilling Hubert Davis’s desire to have his program compete on the biggest stage in the sport. After a 2-0 week last week, coupled with many upsets around the sport, the Tar Heels find themselves ranked inside the top 10 of the latest AP Poll, making this a top-10 matchup. Since Hubert Davis became the head coach, the Tar Heels are 5-3 against top-10 opponents and have already beaten a top-10 team this season, when they beat Tennessee in the ACC/SEC Challenge last week.
College basketball hasn’t seen a team repeat as national champions since the mid-2000s, which proves the belief that repeating as champions in college basketball is the toughest sport to do so. Make no mistake though, this UConn team is more than capable of doing just that. The Huskies are coming off a hard-fought loss in Allen Fieldhouse last Friday in the Big East/Big 12 Challenge and may have cemented UConn as legitimate contenders once again. Danny Hurley’s squad has proven to be an offensive juggernaut in the early portion of the season, with five players averaging double-figures scoring. Tristen Newton leads them in scoring, averaging 17.5 points per game. He also leads them in rebounding at 7.9 rebounds per game, while also leading them in assists at 6.2. Talented five-star freshman, Stephon Castle returns tonight, after having not played since November 11th, although his minutes are expected to be limited.
Under Roy Williams, Carolina generally played the toughest non-conference of any major power conference program. After three years on the job, it appears that will remain under Hubert Davis. Carolina is currently in the midst of playing four straight ranked non-conference opponents after they beat Tennesee last week. After tonight’s game against UConn, UNC will face nationally-ranked Kentucky and Oklahoma. But first, Carolina has to do battle with a UConn team, that will serve as a measuring stick for just how far this team and program have come after an off-season spent focused on restoring the program to the top of the ACC, and nationally relevant.
Win the Race to 80: Both teams average north of 80 points, and these are two of the best offensive teams according to KenPom. In other marquee non-conference games this season, when Carolina has won the race to 80, they’ve won the game (Arkansas and Tennessee). When they haven’t won the race to 80, they’ve lost (Villanova). Carolina’s defense has struggled to start the season, and this is by far the best offensive team they’ve faced so far, Tristen Newton is the best guard/wing player Carolina has been tasked with slowing down. Hubert Davis full-court pressed the final 12 minutes of the game in the comeback against Florida State. Expect Carolina to do that once again, to speed the game up, and create easy scoring opportunities.
Make Perimeter Shots: In the win over Florida State, Carolina shot just 23% from behind the arc, which won’t get the job done tonight. Teams are making 6.4 three-pointers against UConn to start the season, and teams are shooting 37% from behind the arc against them, making them vulnerable. You know that R.J. Davis is going to make his fair share of perimeter shots, but this feels like a game in which Cormac Ryan has to make his presence felt on the offensive end of the floor. Ryan is shooting just 29% from behind the arc to start the season, tonight is as good a night as ever, to turn those shooting numbers around.
Win the Interior: One of the things that makes college basketball beautiful is that the big man is still valued, and this year is the year of the big man in the sport. Armando Bacot will have his hands full tonight, with Donovan Cliingan, arguably the best big he’ll play all season long. Bacot will need to handle his own, and help Carolina compete on the glass, against the best rebounding team they’ve played so far this season. Furthermore, Carolina needs to protect the paint, which won’t be easy, as UConn shoots 64% from two-point land, which is the 3rd best percentage in the country. Whichever team wins the rebounding margin, and the points in the paint, most likely wins the game.
Jimmy V Classic History:
This is the third time Carolina has played in the Jimmy V Classic, and UNC is 1-1 in previous matchups. In 1996, Carolina took down UMass 83-69. In 1999, Carolina fell to Indiana 82-69. The only difference between then and now is that the Jimmy V Classic was played in the Meadowlands and not Madison Square Garden.
Carolina is 5-1 all-time against UConn, although this is the first matchup since 2005. In Chapel Hill, Carolina is 3-0 against the Huskies. On the road, Carolina is 1-1, having won in Hartford, but lost in Stoors. They have only played once on a neutral court prior to tonight, a UNC win in the 1998 East Regional final. Hubert Davis was 1-0 against UConn as a player, scoring 11 points in a 79-63 in the old ACC/Big East Challenge.
North Carolina - 12th overall. Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 119.6 (5th). Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 97.1 (35th).
UConn - 4th overall. Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 121.2 (4th). Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 93.7 (14th).
North Carolina - 31st.
UConn - 10th.
TV Info: Tonight’s game will tip at 9 PM on ESPN.
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