North Carolina vs Northern Kentucky, 7:00 PM, ESPNU
The good ol' post Christmas break non-conference cupcake game.
When we last saw UNC they had beaten Kentucky, then missed 23 free throws in a loss to Texas followed by a hard fought overtime win over Davidson. During that span UNC had the Leslie McDonald case resolved with the fifth year senior returning plus news that junior guard P.J. Hairston's career as a Tar Heel was done. It was a physically and emotionally draining week for a young team best summed up by Marcus Paige's "I'm exhausted" comment after UNC's win on Saturday night. Add to that Roy Williams being sick and worn out himself from the past six month, the five day break could not have come at a better time.
The Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill for practice on Thursday presumably recharged from the time off. If anything the players should have fresher legs although a little post-holiday rust wouldn't be out of the ordinary. While the Davidson game was technically the "first game of the rest of the season" in the wake of UNC finally resolving the NCAA issues, this game against Northern Kentucky is that on a practical level. The break provided for a reset of sorts for this team and in a way everyone can get back into the routine of practice and game with a full view of what the season going forward will be.
Unless UNC indicates otherwise, it is assumed sophomore center Joel James will be out for a second game since spraining his MCL in the first minute versus Texas. The timetable given for James' return was 10-14 days meaning he will likely be out until January. Brice Johnson got the start in James' place against Davidson but played perhaps his worst game of the season scoring only 2 points and fouling out with 3:59 left in the game. Kennedy Meeks, the other option at center, was perfect from the field on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in just 16 minutes. Meeks' defense is a limiting factor(as evidenced by Roy Williams using Jackson Simmons on defense versus Davidson.) It is doubtful Williams is going to shuffle the lineup because Johnson had one bad game. If Johnson starts again he will undoubtedly be looking to redeem his sub-par performance from six days ago.
Given UNC's penchant for playing down to competition and some expected rust from the break, it wouldn't be surprising is this was a bit rough around the edges. The disparity between these two teams is significant on paper meaning UNC should win big but since the Tar Heels love to defy prediction, no one knows what's going to happen.
UNC 89 NKU 60