Casper Ware #22 of the Long Beach State 49ers dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals.
Let's get the obvious out of the way. Long Beach State is not your typical December opponent. They've already knocked off Pittsburgh, and played Kansas close in an eight-point loss. They've had to play five of their eight games on the road, and they've still managed a 4-4 record. Ken Pomeroy has them rated higher than all but four ACC schools right now.
Of course, Pomeroy also says the Heels will win 91% of the time, so you can overstate how good the 49ers are. But this is a team that starts four seniors and a junior, exactly the type prone to upset big-name teams. The guy leading the team is senior point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player and Defensive Player of the Year. He'll play almost the entire game, take (and make) most of the shots, and still rack up an impressive number of assists. And he'll be joined in the backcourt by another good guard, senior Larry Anderson.
Long Beach State likes an up-tempo game, and will probably run with the Heels. They'll need to, as they give a couple of inches in the paint, although both T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps are among the cream of the Big West, especially on defense. What the 49ers don't have is depth; their starting five play a huge chunk of the team's minutes. Other than that, you'll see a team that resembles UNC in a lot of ways, constantly looking for turnovers on defense and only occasionally resorting to an outside shot.
Of course, the Heels are familiar with all of this. They blew a seventeen point lead to LBSU at home last season, and only eked out a 96-91 victory on the back of a big game from Harrison Barnes. This year's squad is a year older and wiser though, and should be able to handle things. If nothing else, the three-point defense for UNC has gotten much better.
P.J. Hairston, after taking Wednesday and Thursday off, practiced Friday, and his ankle appears to be fine.