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Even if the Tar Heels don't end up facing Louisville in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, it won't be long before they're faced with a real test. North Carolina will be heading to East Lansing, Mich., on December 4 to face off against the Michigan State Spartans.
Not only do the Spartans represent the Tar Heels' first real challenge, they may be one of—if not the—toughest of the season.
The loss of senior Derrick Nix was a big one following the 2012-13 season. But Tom Izzo still retained his top three scorers in Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne.
He also has Branden Dawson, who has failed to live up to his superstar hype to this point, but his sophomore campaign was still pretty impressive. He averaged 8.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks over 26.9 minutes per contest.
Now that's filling a stat sheet. He also shot 53.1 percent from the floor to boot.
The Spartans always surprise people without recruiting the top players out of high school. Izzo just finds quality, coachable players he can develop in the system. So far, that strategy has worked out pretty well.
And it appears he may have built one of his better teams for this coming season.
On paper, the Tar Heels match up pretty evenly if you include P.J. Hairston. However, it's unlikely he will be available for the seventh game of the season.
The matchup between Marcus Paige and Keith Appling could be the difference-maker. Neither team is going to excel without solid play from the floor generals. Appling is the quicker, stronger player between the two, but Paige is the better outside shooter and is a deceptively savvy defender.
Even with all the great teams Tom Izzo has produced over the years, trying to take down Roy Williams' Tar Heels has been a fruitless endeavor. Williams is 5-0 against Izzo at North Carolina, including the 89-72 romp the Tar Heels gave handed the Spartans in the 2009 title game.
That history isn't enough to brush off Michigan State. It will be really good this coming season, and the Spartans may be lucky enough to face a Hairston-less Carolina squad.
Did I mention it was in Michigan?