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UNC at #20 Illinois

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What: ACC-Big Ten Challenge
Where: Assembly Hall, Champaign, IL
When: Tuesday, November 30th, 9:30 PM
TV: ESPN
Records: UNC 4-2; Illinois 6-1

Even before the season started, this was expected to be a tough game and the most probable game for UNC to collect a loss. Of course there was also the belief the Heels would show up in Champagne 6-0 and playing much better than they have to this point. Thus far that has not been the case. As much as the whole Larry Drew/Kendall Marshall horse has been flogged to a point of decomposition greater than that of Barbaro, the point guard issue only represents one issue for this young team. Some astute observations from the comments sections have pointed to defensive rebounding and poor shooting as bigger culprits than the play at the point. As C.Michael has noted, Marshall gives you more on offense but creates a weakness on defense. The opposite is true with Drew which should lead Roy Williams to try some different backcourt combinations to draw on Reggie Bullock's offense alongside Drew or Dexter Strickland's defense alongside Marshall.

Unfortunately that still does not resolve all of UNC's pressing issues. The defense has been good in my opinion but against College of Charleston the defensive rebounding did not finish the job. That will be a concern vs Illinois since the Illini boast some quality big men. Mike Tisdale is listed at 7-1 and is accompanied in the front court by 6-9 Mike Davis. If UNC had trouble handling a much smaller Charleston team on the defensive glass, wrapping yourself up in the fetal position clutching a photo of Tyler Hansbrough would not be wholly inappropriate when considering what might happen when UNC faces a team with comparable size. Also of concern for UNC is the following three numbers: 48%, 46%, 42%. Those are the three-point shooting percentages for Illinois top three scorers. In other words, Illinois possess the kind of offensive balance that quite frankly could eat the Heels alive if their aren't careful. Not to mention a solid point guard in Demetri McCamey who is averaging 7.7 assists vs 2.0 turnovers per contest. To say UNC's defense will be tested is putting it mildly.

For past UNC teams a solid test to the defense could be overcome by greater offensive efficiency. Unfortunately this team has not shown any but also suffers from the fact there are not 2-3 solid offensive options. Tyler Zeller has been the best player so far in terms of stats and his poor showing vs Charleston may have just been a fluke. After Zeller it has been a mixed bag of offensive performances. John Henson was great vs Charleston but not so much prior to that. Leslie McDonald has had good shooting nights vs Hofstra and Charleston but nothing much to show beyond that. Harrison Barnes, who many thought would be the team's leading scorer, is averaging 11.8 ppg and has basically one good half of basketball to show, that coming vs Hofstra. Marshall and Bullock show promise but do not play enough. Strickland is shooting over 50% but appears to be hesitant to take the bull by the horns on the offensive end. All that being said, I think UNC has options if those different parts can all begin performing consistently. In reality you need three solid offensive performers who are bringing good production night in and night out. Add to them spot contributions from multiple role players and you usually can score on a consistent basis. For UNC Zeller, Barnes and either Strickland, Bullock or Henson really need to step up into that Big Three or perhaps even Big Four model. The Heels also need to get some perimeter shooting from Barnes, Strickland, McDonald and either of the PGs. If that happens, UNC can find some offensive balance. If they improve the defensive rebounding and create some turnovers, the transition game will be there as well.

The question is whether tonight is the night some of this clicks in. The Charleston game was a good experience for the team. They had their faults but the Heels also fought through to win a game that could have very well gotten away from them, all while Zeller struggled and Barnes continued to be underwhelming. If you get good nights from Zeller and Barnes, another solid performance from Henson and something tangible from the Marshall/Drew/Strickland trio, UNC might find enough offense to win this game. If not, then it will be more haphazard play on the offensive end with a mixed bag of inconsistency which will have UNC teetering just behind Illinois but never quite able to get over the hump.

Which will it be? I have no idea but having seen too much of one and not enough of the other, I tend to think it will be the frustrating version until it is proven otherwise.

Illinois 76 UNC 68