At the beginning of the season, almost everyone had Dec. 19 circled on their calendar. After all, the North Carolina Tar Heels and Texas Longhorns would be battling.
These are two of the best college hoops programs in the last decade, two of the best coaches of all time. They are young teams, but talented teams.
This was supposed to be one of the best matchups of pre-conference play.
But the Tar Heels, despite be ranked No. 23, have stumbled out of the gate with blowout losses to the Indiana schools—Butler and Indiana—and most recently, a scary six-point victory over East Carolina.
The Longhorns, meanwhile, haven't just stumbled out of the gate. With Myck Kabongo sidelined due to an NCAA investigation, they've tripped out of the gate and stayed there—losing to Chaminade (yep), USC, Georgetown and UCLA.
Nonetheless, despite both squads' less-than-ideal starts, the prestige of both schools always makes this a must-see matchup.
Where: Frank Erwin Special Events Center, Austin, TX
When: Wednesday, Dec. 19 at 9:00 p.m. ET
Live Stream: WatchESPN
North Carolina Injury Report (via USA Today)
None to report.
Texas Injury Report (via USA Today)
F Jaylen Bond, Foot, Questionable
G Myck Kabongo, Eligibility, Questionable
While no decision has yet been made on Kabongo in this increasingly outrageous story and his status for Wednesday's matchup is very doubtful, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo believes the talented sophomore point guard will be back soon (via MLive.com's Diamond Leung):
So, there's that, Texas fans. Yay?
What They're Saying
Putting it nicely, North Carolina's post play has been mediocre this season and that's a large reason why the Heels are struggling. That became extremely evident during Saturday's battle with East Carolina (via Greg Barnes of Inside Carolina):
Roy Williams switched to a small lineup at the 14:46 mark of the second half, subbing in Tokoto for James Michael McAdoo after the Pirates cut UNC’s 18-point lead in half at 47-38. Less than two minutes later, Bullock subbed in for Desmond Hubert, effectively sliding the 6-foot-5 Tokoto to the five spot.
McAdoo reentered the game at the 10:55 mark. That short window of time, however, was enough for Williams to make his point that post production has to improve.
North Carolina’s four primary post players – McAdoo, Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson – failed to pull down an offensive rebound against the Pirates. The quartet has just one offensive rebound in UNC’s past two games.
“I’ve never had a game where a post player never got an offensive rebound the whole game,” Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Williams' squad is incredibly young on the inside. After losing Tyler Zeller and John Henson to the NBA, the veteran head coach was left with two freshman (Joel James, Brice Johnson) and two sophomores (Desmond Hubert, James Michael McAdoo).
Moreover, McAdoo, who was supposed to quell the post problems by taking huge strides forward after an encouraging March, has been both inconsistent and underwhelming.
North Carolina Player to Watch: P.J. Hairston
Last week, I talked about how two freshman (Marcus Paige and Johnson) were worth watching for two very different reasons. This week, it's all about Hairston.
The talented sophomore is so close to being one of the best offensive players in the ACC and he displayed why on Saturday.
Hairston, when focused, is lights out from beyond the arc. He's only shooting 35.3 percent from there on the year, but evidenced by his free-throw stroke (86.4 percent) and his nearly flawless mechanics, he has the ability to catch fire on any given night.
See games against Mississippi State (4-of-7 from deep) and ECU (2-of-4) for evidence.
But he's not just a shooter. Hairston is 6'5", 220 pounds and as he displayed against the Pirates on Saturday, he can be a slasher and either finish strong at the cup or get to the free-throw line.
Hairston is only averaging 17.3 minutes per game, but after dropping 18 in just 20 minutes this weekend, he leads the Tar Heels in points per 40 minutes.
North Carolina has a lot of talented wings, but Hairston, who comes off the bench, might just be the most dangerous out of any of them. The next step is finding consistency.
Texas Player to Watch: Sheldon McClellan
Watching Texas on offense is similar to watching a train wreck, but if there's one guy who is going to put the ball in the hoop, it's sophomore Sheldon McClellan.
The sophomore, who was thrown into heavy minutes slightly early as a frosh last year, leads the Longhorns with 15.3 points per game. He's hit double-figures in every contest.
Now, it's not exactly always pretty with McClellan. He's shooting just 38.1 percent from the field and his effective field goal percentage of 44.7 is pretty ugly. Over his last three games (two losses), he's knocked down just 10-of-35 shots and 3-of-13 from the outside.
Still, though, he finds ways to score.
More often than not, McClellan does his damage from the outside or from the mid-range, as he's a very good shooter and has the ability to catch fire and carry the Longhorns.
However, he also has the ability to get into the lane and draw fouls, as he's already made it to the free-throw line 59 times (where he shoots at a 88.1 percent clip) in 10 games.
How McClellan fares against UNC's slew of veteran guards will be a big story in this one.
Matchup to Watch: Contrast of Styles
It's the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
North Carolina's offense, at times, is flawless. When they are able to get out and run (79.2 possession per game, second most in the nation) and move the ball crisply (20.1 apg, first in the nation), the Heels are practically unstoppable on that end of the court.
Overall, they are scoring a solid 1.028 points per possession and rank 42nd in offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. Those aren't unbelievable numbers, but when the Heels are playing well, they are much better than that on offense.
On the other side of the ball is where Texas has won its games. The Longhorns like to get into you, make the game physical and not allow good shots. As a result, they are second in the country in points per possession allowed (0.758) and first in opponent field goal percentage (32.8 percent).
If this turns into a high-scoring game, expect the Tar Heels to be on top. If it's more "Big-Ten-y", look for Texas to pull the upset.
Who ya got?
It's hard to trust either of these teams right now, but without Myck Kabongo out, the Longhorns simply don't have as much talent as North Carolina.
I expect Texas to keep things close at home, but in the end, the Heels' will be able to force the Longhorns' shaky offense into plenty of turnovers and thus play at the pace they want to play—allowing their talented wings to take over.
North Carolina 75, Texas 65