North Carolina has moved from "unproven" to "legitimate contender" in the past couple of weeks, and on Wednesday, the Tar Heels will look to continue that momentum against a Texas team still stuck in the first phase of that transition.
Without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who are currently suspended due to NCAA eligibility concerns, Roy Williams' squad entered the 2013-14 campaign drenched in youth. But after an up-and-down start to the season, the Heels have begun to put things together, with wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.
Next up is another storied program in Texas, which has had UNC's number as of late:
Texas has beaten UNC in 5 of the last 6 meetings between the schools.— InsideCarolina (@InsideCarolina) December 17, 2013
The Longhorns are 9-1, but their best win this season has been at 4-4 Temple. With a rotation comprised of all freshmen and sophomores, except for junior Jonathan Holmes, Rick Barnes' team is still an unknown entity.
But as Barnes pointed out, via CBS Sports, a matchup in Chapel Hill against a surging Tar Heels unit will certainly give us a better idea of who they are.
I am excited to see where we are, I am excited to see us continue to grow and do what we have done up to this point. When you talk about building resumes, this is where that comes in. This is a tough opponent, tough place to play, and then we come home and have a tough one.
Let's take a closer look at the compelling non-conference rematch of last year's 85-67 Texas win.
Note: All stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless noted otherwise
Date: Dec. 18, 2013
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST
Where: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
UNC Player to Watch: Kennedy Meeks
The Tar Heels, especially sans Hairston and McDonald, are one of the most intriguing teams in the country because they have so many young pieces—Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Nate Britt—coming into their own.
For now, though, let's turn our focus to Kennedy Meeks, one of the most unique players in America.
The true freshman still has problems with conditioning (he has played more than 20 minutes just once all season, although he's improving in that area), but when he's on the court, good things happen for the Heels.
Video on Kennedy Meeks' journey thus far at UNC. Plenty of highlights here & good to hear a lil behind the scenes. http://t.co/YNR9QEj30g— Lance Dunlap (@LanceLovesHeels) December 13, 2013
At 6'9" and 290 pounds, Meeks is unsurprisingly an absolute force in the middle. Unable to be pushed around on the interior, he has a 14.3 offensive rebounding percentage and 30.5 defensive rebounding percentage. Although it's worth noting the sample is limited, those numbers are both first on the team and among the best in the country.
Don't for a second think he's just a big tree in the middle, however. Meeks is supremely talented.
He's a solid offensive post player who can score in a variety of ways, he has turned the ball over just five times in 134 minutes despite being the second-most used player (24.0 percent possessions) on the team and is one of the best outlet passers in the country:
It's only a matter of time before he's playing major minutes, but for now, Meeks will have to settle for elite productivity in short bursts.
Texas Player to Watch: Isaiah Taylor
We'll stick with the true freshman theme here, albeit with a player who was far less recruited and is just a tad smaller (6'1", 170) in Isaiah Taylor.
The Hayward, Calif., product isn't much of a shooter (1-of-6 from beyond the arc and just 61.1 percent from the charity stripe), but he can create off the dribble, either getting to the hoop (he takes 50 percent of his shots at the rim, per hoop-math.com) on his own or distributing for guys like Javan Felix, Cameron Ridley and Holmes.
Taylor is only getting better as he continues to acclimate to college speed, too, with an efficient 54 points on 40 shots and 20 assists to just five turnovers in his last four games.
Throw in his ability to defend, and how he fares against Paige on both sides of the court will be crucial Wednesday.
What will be the result?
Prediction: North Carolina 85, Texas 75
The Longhorns have a bright future. But a young, untested team isn't going to fare well at the Dean Center, especially against a talented Tar Heels squad that is playing really well and getting better.