It's a strange ACC/Big Ten Challenge this year. The Big Ten, fresh off their first victory in eleven tries, is the favorite to repeat. And the UNC game isn't even expected to be close, with 6-1 Illinois an overwhelming favorite. How did the Illini, a team that needed a miracle comeback to beat Clemson a year ago, come in a heavy favorite?
Improved guard play, for starters. Demetri McCamey has been a core member of the team for the past two seasons, but he's been hampered by turnovers. So far this season he's kept control of the ball, while continuing to shoot well; he's the team's biggest threat from beyond the arc. His improvement is dwarfed by Brandon Paul's, though. Paul shot so poorly last season he lost his starting job, but this season he's had three hot games, against Irvine, Maryland, and Western Michigan. It's a little early to tell, but he has a chance to give UNC fits.
Carolina has handled good guard play so far this season, or at least survived it. It's the interior game that's a concern though. Illinois is long and deep. They start two seniors who have been paired with McCamey these past two years, 6'9" Mike Davis and 7'1" Mike Tisdale. Davis is a monster on the defensive boards, while Tisdale has really picked up on the offensive glass. The Illini have a second seven-footer coming off the bench in freshman Meyers Leonard, and another senior in Bill Cole for UNC to tangle with, even if both are seeing limited minutes this season. And lastly, they've got their own equivalent to Harrison Barnes; last season's Mr. Basketball for Illinois, Jereme Richmond, the third-best rebounder on the team behind the starters.
Rebounding has been a problem for the Heels even against smaller teams, against a team like UI it'll be a real war. John Henson will need to have a monster game; the best news there is that the Illini front line is built rail-thin like Henson. Hopefully Zeller and Justin Knox will be able to carve out some space inside, and the outside shooting will be on. Offensive rebounds will be negligible, so the shots have to fall unlike the past few games. It's a winnable game for Carolina, but I haven't seen this team put together a complete game yet this season, especially away from home. If UNC wins, it'll put a lot of questions to rest. I wouldn't count on it happening just yet.