Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels are finally at the end of the non-conference road, but one hazard still stands in their way.
The UNLV Runnin' Rebels are heading into Chapel Hill this weekend with an 11-1 record and a No. 20 ranking. Though the unranked Tar Heels are considered to be the Rebels' toughest challenge thus far, don't mistake this team for a cupcake.
Dave Rice's squad is loaded with talent.
This game will be no easy win for the Tar Heels. A loss could crush their confidence heading into ACC play. But a win could give this team just the boost they need, and I have five keys to make it happen.
In no other prior game has James Michael McAdoo's performance been more important to the Tar Heels than this Saturday. McAdoo will be paired up with the arguably one of the best power forwards he has faced this season.
Freshman Anthony Bennett has been an absolute monster for the Runnin' Rebels, and it goes beyond just his staggering 19.5 points per game. At 6'8", 240 pounds, Bennett is a physical specimen who is willing to use every inch and pound to dominate his opponents.
It's proven to be a tough task for McAdoo to match the physicality of other power forwards, but he must find a way to do it in this game.
As evidenced by his average, Bennett is an aggressive scorer that can take it to the rim, use his large repertoire of post moves or ability to step back and bury a three—which he is doing at a 35.3 percent clip. If this big man gets carried away, we'll see a lot of long faces in the stands of the Dean Dome.
Roy's carousel of centers will have to deal with Pitt transfer Khem Birch. Birch had a rough go at Pitt, but has proven to be a weapon in his first three games of eligibility with the Rebels. He put up 20 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in his last performance.
Again, I feel Joel James should be used the most, given his size and rebounding ability. Offensively, Brice Johnson appears to be the best weapon, though he doesn't seem as comfortable at center.
But who knows what Roy is going to do. It's been a mess at the 5, and it's hard to say when that will come to an end.
If the Tar Heels can't control the paint against UNLV, they might as well throw in the towel.
The Tar Heels rank third in the nation, averaging 45.8 rebounds per game. In three losses, the team only averaged 34.7 rebounds per game.
With the loss of Mike Moser, the Rebels' rebounding has gone down slightly, but they still rank 13th overall.
This is one of the reasons I feel Joel James should get a significant chunk of minutes. McAdoo will have a hard time getting position over Bennett, who leads the team with 8.5 rebounds per game. If Bennett can't be controlled on the boards, someone will have to push Birch off the block.
There isn't a better candidate for that duty than James.
Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston will also be key—especially on the offensive end. Other than McAdoo, the two guards/forwards are the only players on the team with over 20 offensive rebounds.
As good as UNLV's defense is, there won't be many easy shots in this contest, and UNC will have to own the glass to make up for well-defended misses.
UNLV has allowed its opponents to get off 18.8 three-pointers per game, but much of that has to do with their dominance on the inside. Opponents have no choice but to jack up threes when they can't get anything on the inside.
The Rebels are still holding opponents to 29.5 percent shooting behind the arc.
Wide-open threes will be hard to come by for the Tar Heels, as the Rebels execute the hedge and recover to perfection. But they will have to capitalize on every opportunity they are given, which is something they were unable to do against the stingy perimeter defense of Texas.
We saw where that led. UNLV did allow Canisius to shoot 13-of-29 in the last game, though, so there is some promise here.
As always, UNC will have to lean heavily on the marksmanship of Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald. Both players are shooting over 40 percent behind the arc this season. Hairston is much better than last season, but is still prone to droughts that could hurt the Tar Heels when he goes into "jack it up" mode.
The key here will be to more selective with their treys. Knocking down open threes will boost their confidence and keep them from getting desperate with their shots.
Desperation will quickly turn into defeat.
Few things are more important to the Tar Heels than getting out in transition. When they get on a roll, they have the ability to crush an opponent's morale. When they don't, the Carolina offense has a tendency to go stagnant.
Both teams have had their fair share of turnover problems, and the winner of transition points could be an indicator of which team will come out on top.
UNLV is better in the halfcourt than UNC, and giving them the edge in transition points is a quick way to earn another peg in the loss column. Turnovers will happen, but the Tar Heels must get out and defend the fast break.
UNC has been prone to giving up and letting their opponents run it out. We saw that against Butler, Indiana and Texas, resulting in three losses. Transition is Carolina's game; they can't just let other teams do it better.
As for executing their own transition game, assists will be key here. Most of the time, the Tar Heels have been pretty good about getting the ball to the open man. Sometimes, however, guys get determined to take it in themselves, forcing a much more difficult shot than necessary.
No fast break should end without points when UNC has numbers.
UNLV is shooting 19.6 threes per game. UNC is allowing 22.7 attempts per game.
That doesn't bode well for Carolina.
The Rebels may only be shooting 33.8 percent beyond the arc, but the better teams have a tendency to step it up against UNC's porous perimeter defense. Not only do teams put up more threes than usual, they also bury them at a higher rate.
The Tar Heels tend to be late in their recovery, allowing opponents wide-open looks like they're shooting in practice drills.
I have a feeling this will continue until Williams makes a change with the defensive scheme. It's simply been too hard for the young guys to grasp—especially when the returners barely have it down.
It will be tough enough for Carolina to deal with the inside and transition game of the Runnin' Rebels. The last thing they can allow is easy looks for UNLV beyond the arc.