Aw, shucks, Roy Williams. It's time for some dadgum Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Unanimous No. 1 North Carolina (13-0) opens play at home against Boston College (12-2) on Jan. 4, and the Tar Heels would be wise not to underestimate this potentially dangerous team.
The Eagles have slipped up just twice this season, with consecutive losses late in November. The loss to St. Louis was embarrassing for BC, but they have poured it on since then, losing a hard-fought 71-64 contest to then-No. 10 Purdue before reeling off nine in a row, including close wins over Iowa, Massachusetts, UAB, and Providence.
Meanwhile, since the Dec. 3 beatdown of Michigan State, the Tar Heels have played an array of cupcakes ranging from Oral Roberts to, most recently, Nevada.
UNC was less than impressive at the outset against the Wolfpack, but pulled away for a 84-61 victory. They held Nevada to .349 from the field and just .100 from behind the arc.
They can expect stiffer competition from the Eagles and their floor leader, senior G Tyrese Rice. Rice hasn't been in the same All-Conference form as he was last season, but he is bound to go off eventually, as he did several times in 2007-08, when he averaged 21.6 points a game.
Not surprisingly, Tyler Hansbrough (23.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Ty Lawson (16.6 ppg, 6.6 apg, 2.5 rpg) have led the Tar Heels for most of the year, with Lawson being impressive enough to vault himself at least into the Player of the Year conversation, if not outright contention.
Defensive specialist Marcus Ginyard, though not at full strength, has returned to the lineup and Danny Green has been on fire from the perimeter, shooting .568 from the field and an astounding .481 from three-point range.
Hansbrough has been dangerous from the free throw line as well, getting to the stripe an average of 10 times a game, converting over 87% of his attempts. That makes Hansbrough the best of the starters from the charity stripe, so hacking him won't work for those defending him.
Getting the ball into Hansbrough's hands remains one of the keys for North Carolina, and it's a sure bet that Boston College will do everything in their power to deny him the ball.
The bench has also come up big for UNC and has helped them wear down opponents in the second half. Ed Davis, Larry Drew II, and Will Graves have all been impressive off the bench, and Bobby Frasor has been adequate in spelling Lawson.
Their depth took a hit with the loss of Tyler Zeller for the season (injured in a win over Kentucky), but the substitutes have so far made up for his absence.
The Tar Heel team has played far from perfect, however. They are still guilty of defensive lapses, though they have been significantly better defensively than the 2007-08 team.
They can't afford to stand around and let Rice and Joe Trapani rain down threes and keep Boston College in the game.
Wayne Ellington is off to a cool start, shooting .439 from the field and .356 from behind the arc, both well below team averages.
The fans are excited that ACC play is finally here in a season in which nothing short of a national championship will be satisfactory, a tough position for any team to be in night after night. I expect UNC will eventually lose a conference matchup, just not this one.
Keys to a Tar Heel Victory:
1. Get off to a fast start.
Boston College is not Rutgers or Nevada. In ACC play, UNC can't afford to get off to a slow start and expect to come back every time just because of the name on the front of their jerseys. The Heels did a good job in jumping on Michigan State and Notre Dame early; they need to do the same to the Eagles.
2. Force turnovers and keep the Eagles running.
That's pretty much a key to every UNC game. If Boston College doesn't take care of the ball, they will get blown out.
3. Don't get lazy on defense or rely on the three on offense.
When playing without their heads completely in the game, North Carolina tends to engage in both of these bad habits. They win when they force the ball inside.
Teams compensate by collapsing on Hansbrough and Thompson, opening up Green and Ellington on the outside. When the Heels try to do that in reverse order, it almost always backfires, and they find themselves struggling for consistency.
When they get lackadaisical on defense, they get burned by perimeter shots and they don't get to play at the pace they prefer. Do it against Boston College, and Tyrese Rice just might post a double-nickel on you.
I predict Roy Williams will have his dadgum Tar Heels dang ready for some durn ACC play, so the gosh-blessed prediction is:
North Carolina 92, Boston College 76
Hansbrough: 28 points, 10 rebounds, 10-of-11 from the free throw line
Rice: 24 points, .400 from the field
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